Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, April 19, 2015
The primary purpose of preaching is to proclaim the good news. But sometimes our lectionary readings from the Bible seem to give us more of a bad news message than good news. Today’s reading from I John could be heard as bad news.
I John 3: 6 tells us “No one who abides in God sins; no one who sins has either seen God or known God.” Our lectionary ends with verse 8, but the chapter continues, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil…Those who have been born of God do not sin.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but your minister is not perfect. To be told that anyone who sins is a child of the devil and that those born of God do not sin pretty much tells me to pack up my books and go home. Do I sin? Of course I do. I get angry and frustrated along with the rest. I hurt others—usually unintentionally—but I do slip up. There might be a few others in this room who also have the odd sin they need to confess.
So what do we make of this passage? If we’re not perfect, then we’re not children of God? If we go back two chapters in the same letter of in I John, we will hear two other verses that might help us out. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
If the author says this at the beginning of his letter, then why does he also say, a couple of chapters later, that children of God do not sin? The original Greek language might guide us in this seeming contradiction. The literal translation of I John 3:4 is “doing sin”. It presents a sense of continuity of sin, as opposed to a particular incident. I am reminded of a house cleaning person who told me, “I don’t do ovens.” Perhaps Christians need to say, “we don’t do sin.” In other words, we don’t make a habit of it. Sure, we will sin, but we will then recognize what we’ve done as wrong. What we’ll make a habit of doing is repentance and forgiveness. People who make a habit of sin don’t care. They’ll do something selfishly and not think twice about it. People who make a habit of repentance will be aware of when they screw up and will apologize. Even more, they will try not to do it again, which is what repentance means, and they will work on forgiving themselves and others. There’s a world of difference between “doing sin” and “doing repentance and forgiveness”.
This is the key to being an Easter people. I saw a connection between our two scripture readings for today that I’ve never seen before. In our resurrection stories from the gospel of Luke, Jesus leads the disciples in a study of scripture to understand his death and resurrection. He then commissions them to a particular ministry. What does he tell them to do? He doesn’t say to convert others, or to heal others or even to love others. He tells them to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations. This is the heart of his commission. It is a message of humility and grace. Our world could sure do with a large dose of repentance and forgiveness. And so could we in our families and in our communities.
We will never be perfect; we will make mistakes and we will hurt each other. That’s an unfortunate part of human nature. The test of whether or not we are an Easter people is what we do with our sin. Sometimes I think, “If I apologize one more time, they’re going to think that I’m stupid or incompetent.” But whenever people apologize to me, no matter how many times they have done so, I think highly of them and their ability to get ego out of the way enough to let humility and grace shine through. That’s the message that the resurrected Christ gave to his disciples and to us, an Easter people.
In the movie Billy Elliott, a young Billy is more interested in ballet dancing than in boxing. When he is supposed to be at boxing lessons, he sneaks away to another part of the building to take dancing lessons. His father is furious when he finds out because his family doesn’t do prissiness. One day, he marches into the ballet class to confront Billy and drag him away. When Billy sees his father, he gathers together every last ounce of courage to dance his best. His father is stunned. He is overwhelmed with Billy’s ability and the realization of his own mistaken judgement. He then does everything he can to raise money, in the middle of a brutal coal miner’s strike, to send Billy to the ballet academy. This movie is not a true story, but it comes uncomfortably close to our own prejudicial sins. It also echoes the transformative potential of repentance and forgiveness.
Dead Man Walking is another powerful movie about repentance and forgiveness. Sister Helen argues with a guard about the ethics of capital punishment. He says to her, “You know how the Bible says, “an eye for an eye” to which she replies, “The Bible also calls for death as punishment for adultery, prostitution, profaning the Sabbath, trespassing upon sacred ground, and contempt of parents.” The Guard concedes, “I ain’t gonna get into no Bible quotin’ with no nun, ‘cuz I’m gonna lose.”
Sister Helen works with inmates on death row. One of the inmates claims innocence, but as he approaches his execution date, he finally admits responsibility to multiple murders. Sister Helen then tells him that when he is about to be killed through injection that he keep his eyes on hers because, “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love.”
Sin, repentance and forgiveness lead ultimately to unconditional love. The resurrected Christ, still bearing the wounds of hate, told his disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness. This type of love accepts each one of us as sinners who fall short of Christ’s standards of respect and grace. But if we can be restlessly discontent with our imperfection and nurture a habit of humble confession, we will be an Easter people.
Maya Angelou writes,
When I say… “I am a Christian”
I’m not shouting, “I’m clean livin’.”
I’m whispering, “I was lost,
Now I’m found and forgiven.”
When I say… “I’m a Christian”
I don’t speak with pride.
I’m confessing that I stumble
And need Christ to be my guide.
When I say… “I’m a Christian”
I’m not holier than thou,
I’m just a simple sinner
Who received God’s good grace, somehow
 I John 1:8-9