The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity


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O Lord, we beseech Thee, absolve Thy people from their offences…
Colossians 1:3-12
Matthew 9:18-26

From the beginning of November (cf All Saints) until the end of Advent, one of our major concerns is the nature of our faults and the necessity for turning again to God.

In the second half of the 20th Century the Church underwent a crisis over the notion of sin. this was partly because of the growing realisation that judging people on the basis of their external behaviour was unjustified but also because of a deeper, related suspicion of blanket concepts. There might, too, have been more than a hint of reluctance to accept the idea of personalised sin. Consequently, there is now a generation of Christians growing up without any deep understanding of what sin might be, who would prefer to think that evil is disembodied.

The Collect speaks for its generation in taking the idea of sin, individual and corporate, extremely seriously. Although we may feel that the late Medieval practice of purchasing indulgences to mitigate the harmful effects of sin was primitive and verging on the idolatrous, the practice at least shows how closely people then connected the idea of sin with their salvific prospects; they actually believed that sin could bar them from heaven. In an age of scant medical knowledge they thought of sin as a spiritual sickness that could easily lead to spiritual death or, worse, to perpetual torture. This is why stories of sickness and healing are so important in the Gospels; they provide physical parables about spiritual states. If you have faith in God, as did both the servant and the woman with the haemorrhage, you will be cured.

There are at least three reasons for supposing that we do not take the ideas of an earlier age seriously. First, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (formerly known as Confession) has almost completely died out of Anglican usage. We no longer examine ourselves as individuals and force ourselves to articulate our shortcomings to a priest. Most of us are satisfied with a collective act of penitence at the beginning of the Eucharist or an Office which does not involve a serious examination of conscience. What we are doing, in effect, is de-personalising our sinfulness. Secondly, we have developed an understanding of how behaviour is conditioned by our biological inheritance and physical and social environments although we disagree about the balance between what we call nature and nurture. Yet we often take the further step of using these very proper tools to eliminate any notion of personal responsibility for anything; society is to blame for all our individual and collective ills; and, in turn, this transforms people who might be deliberately behaving badly into victims. Thirdly, in complex societies like ours, we find it convenient not to take sole responsibility for anything. We are knowing in matters of causality and complexity.

Which naturally leads to the core question; what is sin? The notion against which the Church must be constantly on its guard is that sin is some kind of score card of infractions, mainly concerning sexual misconduct. A starting point for answering the question might be to think of the evil that will befall us if we deliberately choose not to love God or our neighbour. In other words, sin is not so much a question of outcome but of motive. By making choices not to love we put distance between ourselves and God. Christians believe that that distance is neither inevitable nor permanent. We believe in a God of love who forgives us if we ask on the basis that to ask is to recognise the error of the choices we have made.

The two sufferers in the Gospel played very different roles. The woman with the haemorrhage of many years shows absolute faith in Jesus and is cured. The young girl has to rely upon the intercession of her father. Yet both are cured. It is impossible, says both of these stories, to work out a mechanics of forgiveness which relies upon some quasi-contractual relationship between the Creator and the created. Rather, we should recognise who we are and how God is. We were created to choose and that freedom of choice leads inevitably to wrong choices; but as God created us to choose, there is an absolute guarantee that we will always be given the means of rectifying our wrong choices and of narrowing the distance between ourselves and the Creator. Sin is not so much a matter of wiping slates as of retaining our determination to lean towards God in our minds and in our spiritual pilgrimage. Sometimes we will turn away and lose ground but, then, with determination we may turn back, encouraged by seeing Jesus upon the road ahead of us, always leading, always there.

God, on the other hand, created out of love and would not create creatures free to love so that they might be trapped forever in imperfection and unhappiness. The difference between the Creator and the created is that for God love is a state of existence, for us it is, consequent upon freedom of choice, the domain of risk; and the deeper the love the greater the risk. This is a warning to the comfortable who in the message of Revelation to the Church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-16), are neither hot nor cold. We must beware of being tepid, of being cautious. We are the church of love not social prudence.

Starting Ponts for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Is sickness a useful metaphor for thinking of sin?
  2. What is the case for allowing the Sacrament of Reconciliation to fall into disuse and the case for reviving it?
  3. Is sin a way of encapsulating what we do or the consequences of what we do?
  4. Consider a balance sheet and varying distance as two ways of thinking about sin
  5. Write a dialogue between the woman with the haemorrhage and the young girl after their cures.

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