12 June 2016
Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3
May my words of my lips help us all to understand your written word and so come to follow your Living Word, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
I want to try a quick exercise this morning.
Without naming names out loud I would like everyone to think about the worst person you know or have ever met personally. I know that as Christians we are not supposed to admit to not liking some people but, I think we can all agree that we have all met someone in our life that we have taken a dislike to for some reason, someone that we would not want to be friends with, someone whom we would not wish to share a meal with, someone who is so disquieting to our sense of what is right and proper that we simply wouldn’t want them around. So, out of all the many thousands of people you have met in your life who is the one person you remember as being the most unpleasant for whatever reason?
If it helps then “the vicar” is not the right answer.
Let’s just take a few moments to think about that.
For what it is worth the person who sticks out most in my memory is someone I met whilst training to be a solicitor many years ago. He was a 70 year old man with a list of convictions stretching back to his early teens who had been arrested and charged with a serious crime. My job, as the trainee working for the firm that had the privilege of acting in his defence, was to visit him in the cells of Ipswich police station and, believe it or not, I had to photograph some rather alarming tattoos that he had in some extremely intimate places. In case you are wondering it was to do with identification evidence. Don’t forget that this was before the days of digital cameras so I had to take that film into Boots to be developed and I spoke to the manager so that he wouldn’t call the police when I came back to collect them!
So I spent a few minutes in this cell taking some photographs that still haunt me to this day and he was perfectly pleasant and polite to me – after all I was his brief whose job was to get him out of there. But I also got a very clear sense that this was not a person that you wanted to be around for very long and certainly not someone you would want to introduce to your friends or family or bring along to meet all the nice people in church. This man was a Sinner with a capital S and I was glad to be away from him as soon as I could. I hold up my hands as a Christian, and even now as a priest, and say that I didn’t like him. For those who want to know what happened to him next I think that the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence and it was one of those cases that convinced me that a career in criminal law was not for me.
The reason I wanted us all, including me, to think about the most unpleasant person we have met was to really bring home to us how shocking today’s Gospel reading is and indeed how shocking it is intended to be. It is too easy to imagine the story of the women who had sinned and been forgiven sitting at the feet of Jesus wiping her tears from his feet with her hair simply as a beautiful tableau of repentance and forgiveness. Of course, on one level, that is exactly what it is and the next obvious step is to imagine ourselves in the place of that repentant sinner, having our sins forgiven by Jesus and giving thanks to God for the burden that has been lifted from our shoulders and, of course, all that is true too and is the reason why we are all here.
But if you want to recapture the original shock value of this story try this for a moment.
You, as a good Christian, a fine upstanding member of Hadlow society and lifelong member of this Church have been invited to throw a dinner party for Jesus. It is obviously quite an honour, perhaps unexpected but you don’t feel that you can say no, and you spend a long time cleaning the house from top to bottom, you invite all your friends from church, you even invite the vicar because you think it is about time that he met Jesus. You spend ages cooking your best recipe, perhaps wondering whether it ought to be kosher or not, and then, at last, you are ready to receive your guest of honour.
The meal commences and you make polite conversation with Jesus. Does he prefer overhead projectors or hymn books? Could he give any clues about which denomination is best? Could he help with the next family service?
And then an unexpected, uninvited and unwelcome guest arrives at the meal. For you it is the person you were thinking of a moment ago, the person you like least in the world, and for me it is the man from the cells, that Sinner with a capital S. Jesus, quite frankly, had been a bit bored with our chat about churchy things but when this terrible person comes into the room, the person we want least in our polite society, Jesus’ eyes light up with joy. The unwelcome guest does not attempt to sit at the table and join in the conversation but simply sits at the feet of Jesus and weeps.
You try and tell Jesus what a terrible person this is: “Jesus, I am terribly sorry for the intrusion – this man is a Sinner with a capital S, he has convictions dating back to when Moses was a boy, no offence, he has tattoos in places you wouldn’t believe, he is not a good person like me and he certainly has no right to be anywhere near you!”
All this time the Sinner with a capital S is crying and Jesus is beaming at him. And then Jesus says:
“Suppose there are two countries, Greece and Switzerland. Greece is on the verge of bankruptcy, it has rioting on the streets and every cent it has is owed to the Germans with interest. Switzerland, on the other hand, is wealthy, stable and has vaults stuffed with bullion. And then Bill Gates and George Soros get together, perhaps with JK Rowling, and they say to Greece and Switzerland – all your debts have been forgiven, the slate is wiped clean – you are free to start again without this burden upon you. Which country would be the most grateful?”
Although slightly confused by this conversational segue you reply: “Well, of course Greece because it has been forgiven much more than Switzerland.”
Jesus says: “You have judged rightly. Therefore I tell you his sins, which were many, have been forgiven; which is why he has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven , loves little.”
And then Jesus turns to the person that we like least in the world and says: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Now I don’t know whether the man I met in the cells ever came to know Jesus and to repent of his sins but I do know that if he did that he had so much sin that the relief of that forgiveness would be so huge that the only possible response would be to sit at Jesus’ feet and weep.
But doesn’t that force us to look at our own response and prejudices – as good Christians we may like to think that we would be rejoicing with the Angels in heaven for every sinner that repents and turns to the Lord but I think that if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we are all capable of responding more like the righteous and upstanding Pharisee – “hang on a minute Jesus, I’m a much better person than him, I pay my taxes, I come to church, I’ve cooked you this meal – what are you doing forgiving this notorious sinner?”
But, as hard as this may be to accept, Jesus does not shares our prejudices and the purpose of God, in Jesus, is to reconcile the whole world to him through the forgiveness of sin. Jesus came into the world not to join in with polite society but to save sinners and it is us who need to get with his program rather than the other way around.
So where does this leave us – are we simply looking on while feeling a little bit jealous as Jesus forgives those who are much worse than ourselves. Of course not. Whilst I wanted to cause a little jolt by getting you to imagine the worse person you know being forgiven by Jesus and to remember that Jesus came and died and was resurrected for that person he also came and died and was resurrected for you.
The fault of the Pharisee and, if we are not careful, the fault of ourselves is to truly imagine that there is a great gulf between the worst of sinners and us and, therefore, that we are somehow in a different category from those of whom we disapprove. The reality is that each one of us carries a burden of sin with a thousand different names and causes. What we have to do, in fact all we have to do, is to be honest with ourselves and to accept that we can’t work our way into a loving relationship with God whilst pretending to be perfect, or at least better than the next person. To paraphrase St Paul from todays reading in Galatians – we don’t put ourselves right with God by simply following the rules of polite society. The only way to get right we God is to have faith in Jesus Christ. To give him the burden we carry as an act of faith and not to care what any one else thinks. When we do that our tears of joy will flow and Jesus will say to us:
“Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”