Jesus was not one to mince his words. He stated clearly what he thought so that there could be no misunderstanding. He took a very serious view of sin, so much so that he used graphic language to draw our attention to how ruthlessly we should deal with it in our lives. Of course, if it was so easy to deal with sin, surely we would all have sorted the problem out a long time ago. Sin is hard to defeat at times. We often do better with the help of a community, something that James recognised in his letter.
The readings at the noon service on Sunday in the Cathedral were Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-end, Mark 9:38-end. The reflection follows:
Mike Yaconelli explained once how it is that a cow from one of the ranches near his home can end up lost. A cow will nibble on a nice tuft of green grass and when it finishes that one it will move on to another nice tuft of green grass. Soon it finds a tuft near to the hole in the fence. From there it spies another tuft of grass beyond the fence and pushes through the hole to reach that tuft. As it continues that way, the cow finds that it has eventually nibbled its way to being lost.
As Mike pointed out, people are in the process of nibbling their way to being lost. We move from activity to activity as the cow moved from tuft to tuft of grass. It is all too easy not to notice that we have wandered far from home, far from the truth, until we suddenly realise we are lost. What Mike is describing is how we end up living a sinful life, at first without realising it. Mike uses the illustration of cattle on a ranch, the Bible uses the picture of sheep wandering away from the shepherd. The result is the same, whatever picture is used.
Talking about sin is not popular and some would say that the idea is old fashioned. We are more grown up now as people, we’re not uneducated people who are afraid of some harsh God who will punish us for doing wrong so why get hung up on sin. If we listen to what Jesus has to say about the matter, he takes the issue of sin very seriously indeed.
Jesus uses shocking and brutal language, purposely overstating what he means in order to get our attention. Cut off your hand, chop off your foot, gouge out your eye! Hardly expressions to be used lightly. As a result we can be under no illusions about how seriously Jesus takes sin. The hand, foot and eye are precious to us; they allow us to live a full life but they are to be weighed against following kingdom values. Of course Jesus didn’t mean us to literally mutilate ourselves. Even something as extreme as that would not get at the heart of sin and root it out.
It might be that Jesus intended to indicate what kinds of sins we commit by the examples he gave. The hand allows us to steal and to murder. The foot takes us to places where there are opportunities for sin. The eye allows us to covet and lust after someone. If we find that a relationship, a job or a habit are against God’s will, giving them up will be just as painful as cutting off a hand or foot. The higher good that will come from the sacrifice is worth it.
St Augustine had this to say about sin: “Sin arises when things that are a minor good are pursued as though they were the most important goals in life. If money or affection or power are sought in disproportionate, obsessive ways, then sin occurs. And that sin is magnified when, for these lesser goals, we fail to pursue the highest good and the finest goals. So when we ask ourselves why, in a given situation, we committed a sin, the answer is usually one of two things. Either we wanted to obtain something we didn’t have, or we feared losing something we had.”
We need to make our choices from an eternal perspective, dealing with sin ruthlessly now rather than becoming stuck that way for eternity. If we are not to literally cut off limbs when we find sin in our lives, what are we to do? James in his letter equates confessing our sins with being healed. Sin in our lives can make us sick; confession and the consequent assurance of forgiveness can make us well. We need to deal with sin and so become well. What we do to deal with it will depend on the particular sin and who it affects. If we have sinned against an individual we should go to them and ask for forgiveness if that’s possible. If something we have done has affected our church or community, we should publicly own up to it, which is a very challenging thing to do.
Sometimes we will really be struggling to overcome a sin which constantly bothers us. God put us in communities for a purpose, so that we can bear one another’s burdens. If we need loving support and someone to be accountable to in order to fight the battle against some sin, it is appropriate to find someone to confess that sin to and ask for help. Such support can make the difference between victory and defeat.
At times it may be that we don’t need to confess to a person or a community, but just to God. That may be enough to help us to feel free and given a fresh start. At other times, we may not feel forgiven when we confess to God. In that case the community can help us again. Each of us in God’s kingdom is called to be a priest to other believers. There is a value in someone confessing their sins aloud so that we can reassure someone else that God forgives them their sins and so help them to be free from guilt and worry. In the Anglican and other churches there is an emphasis on ordained members of the church giving such assurance. We may wonder about ‘ordinary’ people doing this. We know that we are righteous in God’s sight and the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. James reminds us of the case of Elijah, an ordinary man who prayed to his extraordinary God and saw great things happen in answer to his prayers. We too can pray on behalf of our fellow Christians when they struggle and know that our extraordinary God will answer and heal them from the effects of sin.
All this concerns our own sin and how to deal with it as doing so is good for us, bringing us health and freedom. It doesn’t only affect us though. We are to be good examples and teachers of others, especially of children and those who are young in the faith. We are not to lead others astray or damage their faith. That applies equally to us as individuals and as a Christian community. Here at the Anglican Cathedral we often find new Christians or those seeking faith come to share our worship or to ask questions. This medium can throw up many dilemmas, such as whether what we do in SL affects the person behind the avatar in RL. It’s up to us all to live in a way that is motivated by love for all. We are responsible for helping others come to Christ and, at times, telling others of Christ’s words of forgiveness. We have such a wonderful opportunity here. Let’s work together as a community to make the most of it and benefit as many as possible.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor