One of the least popular subjects to preach on is sin. People don’t like it. Some, because it challenges the deep fondness they have for the sense of their own goodness, some because they simply deny the existence of sin, and then there are some who believe God’s infinite love for us makes speaking of sin unnecessary, even ‘sinful’. These people, very obviously, have not read the Scriptures attentively.
The Scriptures are always speaking about sin, and it’s a curious phenomenon of the modern age that a priest should have to make a deliberate effort, like the one I’m making right now, to restore to sin its rightful place in the drama of Christian life.
Right from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible sin struts confidently onto the stage. Hardly has God completed creating them than Adam and Eve disobey the first and only restriction he places on them. From that moment the history of humanity becomes the history also of sin.
The Old Testament goes to extraordinary lengths to ‘convict’ mankind of sin. Like little children, early man actually needed to be taught about sin. ‘That’s a naughty word, Johnnie, don’t use it again’ is roughly equivalent to ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’
The liturgical prescriptions, too, were meant to show the priests, and people, their own unworthiness before the greatness of God:
'God called Moses, and from the Tent of Meeting addressed him, saying, 'Speak to the sons of Israel; say to them, "When any of you brings an offering to Yahweh, he can offer an animal from either herd or flock.'
'If his offering is a holocaust of an animal out of the herd, he is to offer a male without blemish; it is to be offered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, so that it may be accepted before Yahweh. He is to lay his hand on the victim's head, and it shall be accepted as effectual for his atonement. (Lev 1:4)'
The key words - offering, without blemish, at the entrance to the Tent, for his atonement - serve to establish a deep awareness in the People of their need for redemption. Modern man, however, lost in the virtual world of his own unblemished goodness, might be genuinely puzzled by these words. 'Atonement? Atonement for what?’
The ultimate unveiling of one’s sinfulness, of course, occurs in the experience of the presence of God because an experience of God is always an experience of self. Perhaps this is one of the reasons so few of us pray.
In our readings today Isaiah experiences the Lord (…I saw the Lord…) and immediately exclaims: What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips… .
St Paul refers to his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus (…he appeared to me...) and how he had discovered his lowliness (...he fell to the ground...) and his sinfulness (...you are persecuting me).
So inflexible is this dynamic by which we experience ourselves and our sinfulness in the presence of God that we can rightfully suppose from Peter’s reaction in the boat (Depart from me … I am a sinful man) that he had suddenly experienced the presence of the divinity of Jesus.
None of these men was pretending when they confessed themselves sinners. God didn’t come to them and say ‘Ah, no, you’re OK; you’re not really so bad. Don’t give it another thought.’ It was because they acknowledged their sinfulness that God was able to offer his mercy.
- Isaiah was cleansed by the live coal which the angel touched to his lips (your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged).
- Ananias laid his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit.
- Jesus did not contradict Peter’s self-assessment but said to him: Do not be afraid, and then gave him a mission.
It is perhaps in these words to Peter that the rest of us ‘sinners’ can take most comfort because Peter’s journey is also ours - to confess our sin, to accept forgiveness, to say yes to our mission.
In the spirit of our reflection we conclude with a few questions to reflect on:
- Do I claim to know God but don’t recognise my sinfulness?
- Do I acknowledge my sinfulness but haven’t experienced God’s mercy?
- If my sins are forgiven have I no sense of mission?