I was talking about sin to someone once, and they said, quite innocently, “But I’ve never committed any sins!” I was lost for words for a moment, but then I realised what he meant; because he was reflecting a commonly held idea about that word sin. “Sin” for him, and for many others, means something really bad, like murder or theft or something else they might be sent to prison for; and so, if they have never done anything like that, they think they have never sinned. It’s one of the reasons I avoid using the word and prefer to talk about our imperfections and our failings, so that people understand what we Christians are actually talking about.
I wanted to get this straight because in our 2nd Reading today (Col 3:1-11) St Paul talks about us “killing” all our sins.. “all that belongs to our earthly life” as he puts it. The problem with this is how we react to it. Are you one of those people who, like that man I mentioned at the beginning, says “Well I’m doing OK, leading a reasonably good life.” Or are you one of those people who hears the word “sin” and immediately starts feeling guilty? “Oh dear” you say “Why does the Church have to go on about sin all the time?”
Now I don’t think either of those responses is very wise. In a way, both are failing to face up to the real challenges of being a Christian. First, we all need to be aware of our imperfections and failings, and never to become complacent about them. St John says “If we say we have no sin.. the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Indeed, if we listened properly to the Gospel today (Luke 12:13-21) we must have all realised how attached we are to our possessions, whether we have few or many. How angry we get if people mess up our things, or even borrow or steal things that belong to us. How much some small thing that we own can become so precious that it becomes more important to us than caring for other people. No wonder Jesus refuses to help the man who is arguing with his brother about his inheritance. No, instead, he warns us all about this desire to possess things, and says “a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.” And he goes on to tell a sharp story, which ends with death, when God will say “Fool!”- where are all your possessions now?
The problem now is that we all start feeling guilty, because we all know how impossible it is not to cling on to the things we own. But this response, as I said earlier, is equally mistaken, because what really matters is not that we fail to be perfect, but what our attitude to our imperfections – to our sins – actually is. St John may have told us not to say that we do not sin, but he goes on to remind us that in Jesus we meet a God who loves us and takes away our sins, and makes us right with God. So do we sit back then, and say “Oh good, God takes away my sins so I needn’t bother about them anymore?”
Well we could of course, but what a terrible response that would be to the amazing love, the amazing grace and forgiveness of God! No, we do not try to be good in order to please God and thus get to heaven, because if only perfect people get to heaven then we are all destined for hell. What we are meant to do is to try to be good, to try not to be obsessed by the things we own, because we know God loves us, even when we fail to be as good as we could be. This is such an important distinction that I must repeat it. Those clergy, of all sorts of Christian backgrounds, including Catholic priests, who tell us we will go to hell unless we are good, are quite wrong. The point is, as Jesus says in one of my favourite Bible passages. “No-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18)
So, trying desperately to be perfect, feeling guilty if we are not, is not the Christian way. That was the way of the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned again and again. We start with the fact that God loves us, and that he loves every effort we make to be good, as part of our response to his love. Like a little child learning to walk, we learn by not quite making it, and then God catches us in his arms, and encourages us to try again. We get there not by looking at ourselves, but looking towards our loving God, the one who died for us on the cross. As St Paul says in that 2nd Reading “You have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator” or as he says to the Philippians about himself “I have not already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12)