Reformation 3, Saint and Sinner, October 8, 2017
2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Psalm 51:1-12, John 20:19-23
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Martin Marty once said that the purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Martin Luther would definitely have agreed. And the main way God’s Word does this, in Luther’s view, is by reminding us that we are both saint and sinner.
We tend to want to divide the world up into good people and bad people. In the common American world view, there are some people who are worthy and some people who aren’t. Some people who deserve attention and praise and help when things go wrong, and others who don’t. From a Christian point of view, we label these categories as “righteous” and “sinners.” People who have lived good lives, chosen the right things, and been generally good, and those who haven’t. Except things are a bit more complicated than that. Nobody is purely good or purely bad; nobody is all one or all the other. We are all saints—and we are all sinners.
Let’s define our terms here. A “saint,” in the way the Bible uses the word, is someone who is holy in the eyes of God. And a sinner is someone who has fallen short of what God expects of us. And every single one of us has fallen short of what God expects of us. We have all failed to be the good people he created us to be. The only reason any of us are holy in the eyes of God is because of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.
There are some people who know just how screwed up they are. There are some people who know just how much they fail. There are some people who know they are sinners. There are some people who know that they have hurt themselves and others. There are some people who know that they are broken. There are some people who know that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t measure up to where they should be. All too often these people are not in church because they do not believe they are worthy. I’ve talked to so many people who said, “well, if I came to church pastor, there’d be a lightning bolt before I got through the door.” And they mean it as a joke, but there’s a core of truth to it: they believe that they are too broken, too much a sinner, for God to love. If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is a comfort. God loves you anyway, as broken as you are, and you are forgiven and loved and saved. You are a saint of God. And in that forgiveness, God is working to heal you and make you whole. You don’t have to be afraid, you can leave your guilt and anxiety and fear and all your burdens, for Christ is working to reconcile you and all of creation.
But there are people who don’t need to hear that. People who don’t need to hear the message of forgiveness, because they don’t believe they’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven. They believe they’re good, nice people, and that sin is always something other people do. They hear of God’s judgment and they don’t quake in their boots, and it’s not because they trust in God’s mercy: it’s because they don’t believe they’ve done anything to need forgiveness in the first place. Or, if they have, they count it as so minor as not to matter. Because they’re good, nice, Christian people, so by definition anything they do is good, nice, and Christian. I was once in a Bible study with a woman—a devout Christian, there every Sunday—who was really upset that we started each worship service with confession, because she didn’t think she had anything to confess. If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is not supposed to be a comfort. Because you are already too comfortable. So comfortable that you cannot see your own flaws, your own sins, the way your own actions—and inactions—harm yourself, those around you, and the world. This is, by the way, the sin of the Pharisees. The sin of people who think they already have everything figured out, and so miss the very presence of God in their midst even as they claim to worship him.
If you are sitting there thinking to yourself that this doesn’t apply to you, then let’s stop for a bit and take a good hard look at what “sin” means in the lives of good, hardworking, ordinary people who’ve never killed anybody, never had an affair, and so on and so forth. Let’s start with the Ten Commandments, shall we? The first is that we are supposed to worship God alone, and nothing and no one else. God is supposed to be the one in whom we put our trust. God is supposed to be the one guiding our lives—not our co-pilot, but the pilot. How many of us actually do that? Not many. A lot of good, Christian people put their trust in their money, or their ability to work hard, or their political party, or their own views of what is right and wrong, and then just assume that God approves of whatever they want him to. And I’ve seen this happen on both sides of the political aisle, liberal and conservative both. It’s really easy to see when people we disagree with do it; it’s a lot harder to recognize when we do it ourselves. We create God in our own image, instead of conforming our hearts, minds, and lives to God. And that’s sin.
Then there’s the commandment about adultery. It is, by the way, the only commandment having to do with sex. So you’d think we would count it as the most serious sexual sin, but how many people just shrug and say, “well, cheating isn’t so bad, everyone does it.” Not to mention, when Jesus talked about adultery he talked about our own responsibility for how we look at other people sexually. When you look at someone with lust, the proper response is to discipline your own heart and mind, not tell them what they should or shouldn’t wear. It’s not about outer selves, it’s about how we think about others and how we treat them. Sex should not be a commodity or a weapon or a toy, it should be about honest and healthy relationships of mutual trust and love. And yet we splash sex all over the place, use it to sell things, treat people like nothing more than objects for our titillation. Or we use the things people say or wear as justification for anything that happens to them. “What did she expect, wearing a skirt that short?” We treat others as things instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s sin.
How about “thou shalt not kill”? Martin Luther had a lot to say about this commandment. It’s not just about the actual act of murder, it’s about a lot more than that. “God wants to have everyone defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has placed this commandment as a wall, fortress, and a refuge around our neighbors,” Luther said. So we shouldn’t kill, and we shouldn’t allow others to kill. But we also shouldn’t physically attack people, and we shouldn’t allow others to do so. And we shouldn’t say things that encourage people to attack or to seek violent solutions, and we should speak up when others do so. To quote Martin Luther again, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so. If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone who is suffering hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve.”
As a society, we are doing a horrifyingly bad job of fulfilling this commandment. And remember that in the Old Testament, God often does judge societies and communities as a whole. Sin is about our individual actions, but it’s also about what we as a community accept as normal. How do we, as a community and as a larger society, respond to challenges and needs? Do we ensure that all people in our community are cared for and provided for, or do we allow others to slip through the cracks? As a society, America is wealthier than it ever has been. Yet over the last fifty years, as the total productivity and wealth of the nation have grown by leaps and bounds, the number of people who are not merely working class but really poor has also grown by leaps and bounds. The percentage of people who are homeless in America has grown. The percentage of people who are hungry in America has grown. The percentage of people who lack medical care in America has grown. We live in a land of plenty the likes of which the world has never seen before, and simply accept that people being sick and hungry and homeless is normal when we as a society have the resources to do something about it. People die who did not have to, and none of us pulled the trigger, but we allowed the circumstances that caused it. And that is sin.
Then there is the violence in our homes and schools and churches and public places. We teach our young boys that crying is for girls, that real men aren’t afraid or nervous or shy or uncertain. We teach our boys that the only manly emotion is anger. And then we’re surprised when they grow up and take that anger out on their girlfriends, wives, and children. And then we’re surprised when some of them take their anger out on crowds. And we send our thoughts and prayers, and we rehash the same old tired arguments, and we don’t actually change anything, so that it keeps on happening. And that is sin.
We are good, Christian people. And we are sinners. Hypocrites. No matter how we justify ourselves, no matter how we close our eyes to the consequences of our actions and inactions, we are guilty. God loves us, God saves us, God forgives us and makes us whole and holy, and yet while we live we keep messing up, we keep sinning, we keep mistaking our own prejudices and blindness for God’s will. We are saints, and we are sinners. Both at the same time. When we are complacent, or blind, or hypocritical, then we need the law and judgment of God to show us the depths of our error, to afflict our consciences and drive us to God. And when we see the depths of our sin, when we see the consequences of what we have done or allowed to happen, we need the comfort of God’s promise, the good news that God loves us and saves us and is reconciling the world. We cannot pretend to be innocent, but we can never forget that we are forgiven. The world is not divided into some people who are good and some people who are bad. We are, all of us, both saint and sinner. May we always recognize our sins, but trust in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness.