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Talk about sin has been unfashionable for a long time now.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 14th March 2021 at 11.15 AM
Talk about sin has been unfashionable for a long time now. It’s too negative, doesn’t help us feel good about ourselves, it’s not very affirming, and, frankly, it has been used to pretty devastating effect towards certain groups and individuals. Branding someone ‘a sinner’ has and sometimes is used as licence for their abuse and exclusion. Sin, for the church, is a bit of a toxic brand; it looks a bit rebarbative when the prevailing mantra is ‘I’m alright, you’re alright.’
An image consultant would no doubt tell us that talk about sin should be among the first things to go if we want to make Church attractive. Truth to tell, I think many churches have quietly come to that conclusion themselves, whilst others see it as a badge of honour to keep talking extremely loudly about sin, and to be ready at any moment to pronounce on the prevailing ‘sin du jour’.
I almost certainly tend to fall into the former camp, but neither approach really does justice to the notion of sin, as we find it in the Scriptures and as the Church has understood it.
The gospel makes no sense, it has no footing, if we think everything is basically OK. ‘I’m alright, you’re alright’ and that’s surely good enough? Well, it’s not a bad place to start, but it lacks ambition.
Even in the most apparently untroubled corners of prosperous, democratic, liberal human society we can surely identify things that really shouldn’t be, things that we really shouldn’t just put up with for the sake of a quiet, comfortable life: social or racial inequality for example; inadequate social care for the elderly and those with disabilities; the casual sexual harassment of women and its far-from-casual consequences; and, on a wider scale, all those activities that contribute to climate change or environmental destruction. These things are surely not ‘alright’?
And if we were brave enough to look within ourselves, as we are encouraged to do in Lent, surely we would find things to trouble our complacency: those thinly-veiled rivalries, that not-so-passive aggression; unreconciled relationships; old grievances; selfishness dressed-up in all kinds of ways. Without wanting to precipitate crippling guilt, there is surely enough here to suggest a problem.
And, even without a year of pandemic, we might want to suggest that a world of disease and suffering, of death and bereavement, is not something about which we should just shrug our shoulders with stoic indifference. This is not the world as any of us would want it to be.
These are all aspects of what the Church understands sin to be, and yet this is a long way from what most people think is meant by sin. Sin is hopelessly trivialised in popular parlance. In advertising it is most likely to be associated with ice cream or chocolate or sex—or sometimes all three.
I can just imagine St Paul rolling his eyes in exasperation.
Sin runs so much more deeply in our world. Sin is deadly, he tells the Christians of Ephesus. ‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,’ he tells them. Sin, then, is whatever divides us from God, the source of life; and sin is what divides us from one another, without whom we cannot live. Sin is the antithesis of love, the love of God and love of neighbour which is the summary of all law. Sin is the difference between life as we know it and the eternal life that God desires for us.
But, perhaps most importantly, sin, for St Paul, is what Christ takes on and deals with, for us, as a gift.
‘God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (he writes) by grace you have been saved.’
We have been saved from sin—from every facet of our alienation from God and neighbour; from everything that, with a moment’s reflection, we would realise is not ‘alright’. And the manner of that saving, the way it was done bears some reflection—indeed that is what the remainder of Lent and Passiontide is for.
In the wilderness, having been freed from slavery, the Israelites complained against God, as we heard in the first reading. They were bored with Manna, and they thought perhaps this exodus was a nasty trick: God bringing them out of slavery just to die a miserable death in the desert. They put themselves at odds with God, and sin opened-up, and serpents, echoing the Garden of Eden, swarmed in. These sharp-fanged creatures personify, incarnate perhaps, the sin that has divided the people from their God.
The cure for being bitten by the serpents is interesting. Moses was told to make a serpent of bronze, put it on a stick and show it to anyone who had been bitten. They had to look at this image—an image of their sin, their rejection of God, and the very real pain of it. Yet if they had courage to look at it, they were healed.
‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’, said Jesus in the gospel reading.
We are saved from sin by facing sin - by being shown it. The Cross of Jesus—the Son of Man lifted up like the bronze serpent—shows us the image of sin, of God rejected, and the terrible pain of that rejection.
The Crucifix is a peculiar condensation, a uniquely vivid presentation of everything that isn’t alright—from the crucified man, unloved, rejected and tortured, to the wood of the cross itself: a tree, one of the most beautiful and life-giving wonders of creation, butchered and wasted as an instrument of death. And if this man is the Son of God, then the Cross manifests most unmistakably our rejection of God; our alienation not just from one another, or from creation, but from the author of life himself.
Here is the image, par excellence, of everything that isn’t alright—and what a wonder it is, that it is God in Christ, who makes himself that image of sin, and who bears the pain of it even to death; accepting sin’s triumph over life.
God made him to be sin who knew no sin—wrote St Paul to the Corinthians—so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The Son of Man is lifted up so that we might recognise sin, every facet of it; and Christian tradition has kept the image of crucifix before us so that we should never be tempted to trivialise sin, and never become complacent or comfortable with the world as it is; with everything that is so far from being alright, everything that the Cross uniquely represents.
God makes him to be sin for us, so that we cannot mistake sin, and so that we can begin, in the words of Jesus in St John’s gospel, to stop dwelling in the shadows, but to come into the light. In the light of the Cross we can begin to have some clarity about ourselves, our imperfect relationships and our disfigured world. In his light we see light.
And in that alarming clarity, in that piercing, overwhelming brightness, we do not stand condemned.
‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
The light of the Cross is Paschal light—it is the light of resurrection; of sin redeemed and forgiven; of death undone; of a world made more than just ‘alright’. In showing us sin, like the serpent on the stick, we begin to be saved from it. Indeed it is only in that redeeming light, in the power of the Spirit, that we could ever have the courage to look.
Talk of sin may continue to be unfashionable; and where it is spoken of it may continue to be either trivial or simply condemning. That ground may be very difficult to recover, but if we can keep our eyes on the Cross we might at least know what WE mean by sin, and remember that the best definition for sin is that it is what Christ has redeemed; sin is what Christ takes on and deals with, for us, as a gift. And if we can better understand sin in this way, then we might become a better sign to the world of how to up its game, to have more ambition—not to settle too quickly for what is merely ‘alright’, but to seek what is truly good.