11 September 2016
1 Tim 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you sometimes attend one of the Book of Common Prayer communion services then you will be familiar with the words of St Paul from our first reading because, during the BCP service we have the following ‘comfortable words’:
“Hear also what St Paul saith: ‘This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’”
When we hear those words it is very easy to think something along the following lines:
“Ah, bless those sinners, isn’t it nice that Jesus came into the world for them. They might be sinners but, you know, lots of them have had it very hard. Perhaps if Jesus can find it in his heart to love the sinners perhaps I could be nicer to them too. Unless they sin too much of course in which case I might just leave it.”
But today we heard read for us the fuller version of those words from St Paul, which ought to bring us up short:
“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
Of whom I am the worst.
This is a saint and a pillar of the church who travelled the known world evangelising and building church communities and encouraging them from afar with his writings which make up a significant proportion of the New Testament. If one of us had a walk-on part in the bible we might feel pretty chuffed with ourselves – this man wrote big chunks of it. But he knows that sinners are not ‘other people’ on whom we should either look down upon or, if we are feeling holy, try to be nice to. He knows that we are all sinners and names himself the worst.
And, to be fair he does have a rather chequered past. Prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus Saul, as he was then known, persecuted the early church. He was present when Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7 and he went out of his way to try and destroy the church having people dragged off to prison. Paul calls himself here a blasphemer and a violent man. He has seen some of the worst examples of human behaviour and he has seen himself committing them. He is not kidding himself that he is holy and that others are the sinners. He knows that he is a sinner, and indeed the worst of them.
You will have doubtless seen that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was officially canonised as a saint in the Roman Catholic church last week. You may also have seen a backlash against that elevation to sainthood, especially on the internet, amongst people saying that she shouldn’t be a saint because she was imperfect and may even have shown signs of human weakness from time to time. Of course the answer to that is that she knew herself to be imperfect and, like St Paul, she may well have described herself as the worst of all sinners, but such knowledge is not hypocrisy, rather it is an essential step towards true holiness.
Oh dear, I seem to have found myself talking about sin and holiness. I am obviously having a very retro moment – don’t worry you are still in the Church of England!
But, having said that, the word sin and indeed the whole concept of sin can feel rather old fashioned. We are often encouraged to pursue whatever we believe will make us happy without having any regard to sin. However, in my humble opinion, it is only possible to deepen our relationship with God, which is to become holy, when we recognise and name that which separates us from him, which is sin. There are many different ways of thinking about sin, and lots of categories of mortal and venal sin and so forth but, in my view, sin is anything we do or think which mars the holy image of God within us.
Sadly some Christians seem to spend their whole spiritual life criticising the way that other people fall short of their moral code. There are Christian churches, pressure groups and individuals who have made it their lifetime’s work to condemn the way that other people live. But those condemnations never strike me as holy, rather I am always put in mind of planks of wood and specks in eyes. For me true holiness, the way of the saints such as Paul and Teresa and all the others, starts not with looking at the sins of others but, rather, with looking deep within themselves and recognising that each of us stands before God as the worst of all sinners. That includes them, that includes me, that includes you.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
But here we come to a crucial juncture. When, like St Paul and St Teresa, we have taken a long deep look inside ourselves and we realise that we are not perfect, that sinners are not other people and that we may be amongst the worst of all sinners what happens then?
When we become truly aware of how marred the image of God is within us it is all too easy for this to lead to feelings of condemnation or unworthiness. I know that there are people in this village who have no problem recognising that they are sinners but the tragedy is that they think that they are too unclean for God to be interested in them. Too many people think that you already have to be perfect in order to step over the threshold of the church and too many others think that the fact that we are imperfect makes us hypocrites for being here.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
And as the parable of the lost sheep reminds us there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons.
What was St Paul’s reaction to recognising his own sinfulness? It was not self-condemnation or depression. It was a thankful, joyful recognition that God had still sought him out. In a way Paul himself was the lost sheep or the lost coin and God went out of his way to find him, to bring him back into the fold. As Paul himself says:
“The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and have eternal life.”
So let me tell you the good news of Jesus Christ today. No matter who you are, no matter what you have thought or said or done in your life there is no one, no one, who is too mired in sin not to be saved by Jesus. Jesus Christ has immense patience with us and will seek out the lost sheep no matter how far it has wandered from the flock and when, like the good shepherd, he brings us home carried across his shoulders there will be rejoicing in heaven.
So put aside self-righteousness, recognise your own need for repentance and forgiveness and then give thanks that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.