Sermon: I’m the Biggest Sinner of All

Sunday 15 September 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24C

1 Timothy 1:12-17

In the Cemetery Tales next weekend, I’m portraying Major League Baseball player and Christian evangelist, Billy Sunday. He was the most famous evangelist of the early 20th century, traveling from town to town for a week at a time, attracting huge crowds. There has been a fair amount of joking about me playing this role. After all, I am a preacher, and he was a preacher. He even preached at Asbury Methodist back in the day, and here I am as pastor of the church that continues Asbury’s legacy. But our styles are quite different. Billy Sunday sounds like this: “This old God-hating, Christ-hating, whiskey-soaked, Sabbath-breaking, blasphemous, adulterous, grafting, thieving, pleasure-loving, racketeering, socialistic, modernistic world is going to hell so fast, she is breaking the speed limit!” I don’t sound like that.

I was talking with someone about it this week, and they said, “You know, I think most of them sounded like that back then.” And that’s probably true. There has been quite a shift in styles over the years. And not for no reason, either. People got pretty burned out on that kind of fiery preaching. After generations of beating people over the head with their own sinfulness, the message of fire-and-brimstone preachers began to lose its effectiveness. People stopped thinking of themselves as mostly sinful.

Especially in light of liberationist movements, Christians started to recognize the kind of damage that sinfulness preaching had caused. That message was disproportionately wielded against women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the poor. The powerful used the message of sinfulness and the need for Christian humility to keep down the powerless. Those on the margins of society were constantly reminded to consider their own sinfulness and their need for repentance, to stay in their place. Women were reminded that sin came into the world through a woman, through eve. People of color were labeled as children of Satan. All the while, those at the center of power were quite free to continue as they were, assured of their privileged places in God’s Kingdom.

And so, it made sense that we made a shift in our focus. Sinfulness had become such a powerful concept that many people could not or were not allowed to experience God’s love and grace.

Even centuries before, this message had become problematic. Just think of the founders of our two denominations: Martin Luther and John Wesley. Luther’s early life was completely dominated by extreme feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness, feelings that were cultivated in him by his family and his church. As a monk, he would go to confession every day. He spent so much time confessing that the priests he came to complained about it. Today, we would say that he suffered from anxiety and depression, and it was grounded in his sense of sinfulness. It was only through a truly radical experience of God’s grace that Luther was able to overcome his overwhelming sense of sinfulness.

The same was true for John Wesley. In his early life, no matter how hard he tried, he could not escape his feelings of sinfulness and inadequacy. He could not accept God’s grace for himself. It took a long time for him to develop a sense of grace that was strong enough to allow him to accept that he truly was loved by God. Today we would probably diagnose him with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and all related to his sense of sinfulness.

Eventually, and none too soon, Christians began to wonder what would happen if we stopped raising children to think that they were worthless, wretched sinners, broken under the condemnation of God’s righteous judgment, and instead raised them to believe that they were loved by God, created in the image of God, gifted by God, and standing in God’s abiding grace. It’s not a new gospel, but it is a distinct change in emphasis. Rather than leading with sin and judgment, we now lead with grace and love.

I think that’s a good change. I don’t want to go back. I’m glad that Christians can build a positive self-image grounded in God’s love. I’m not interested in trying to convince people of their abject worthlessness.

However, there is a trade-off. We no longer drown people in an awareness of their own sinfulness, which is good. But the side-effect is that sometimes we don’t consider our own sinfulness at all. In fact, the very word “sin” has become almost unspeakable. We seem to reserve the word sin for only the most grievous of offenses against God. And even then, we often don’t use the language of sin. Instead we talk about crimes. Sometimes that means that the only time we use the word sin is when we are referring to something that used to be considered sinful but is now regarded as mostly unproblematic. So we might talk about dancing being sinful, or card-playing, or tattoos. That is to say, we sometimes treat the concept of sin as outdated altogether.

But we miss something when we do that. Because even if we don’t usually call them sins, we do still make mistakes. We still miss the mark. We still come up short. We still end up hurting people, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. We still fail to treat others as well as we could. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. That’s all that sin means, anyway, is to miss the mark.

So if we make mistakes, but we don’t call it sin, then what do we do with it? We have a remedy for sin. We have confession and forgiveness. But what do we do with a mistake that we don’t call sin?

For the most part, we have one of two reactions. We either deny that we have made a mistake, or we feel guilty about making a mistake. Sometimes we do both at the same time. It is hard to actually admit to our mistakes, to admit to our weaknesses, to admit to our failings.

In this age, most of us have to not only live our lives, but we have to be the public relations manager of our lives. We have a life in the real world that we experience, but that is ephemeral. But we also have an online, a life that lasts forever, never goes away. And especially for younger people, that online life has to be carefully curated. You have to put the best possible spin on your life. You have to cultivate an image, a brand of yourself. Because that online life is accessible to the whole world, and it never, ever goes away. In a way, it is more real than real life. And Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram don’t forgive. If you don’t want to fall out of favor, then you constantly have to be hiding and erasing the less savory parts of your life. You need to be hiding your mistakes.

Even if that experience doesn’t seem familiar to you, you can recognized the pattern in our celebrities and pubic figures. Admit nothing. Deny anything that looks bad, even if it is clearly the truth.

For most people—for everyone who has a conscience—that double-life carries a heavy emotional and spiritual cost. We are constantly aware of the ways that our whole lives don’t live up to the life that we project to the world. And that hypocrisy and secrecy breed feelings of guilt and anxiety as well as a sense that we are little more than frauds. But there is no solution. There is no clear remedy.

The author of 1 Timothy, who writes in the name of the Apostle Paul, says this: “This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I’m the  biggest sinner of all.” That’s a very different attitude. I’m the biggest sinner of all. Paul spoke against Jesus, he persecuted the church, and he was full of himself. And yet, God took that broken and sinful life, forgave it, and transformed it into the life of the most prolific apostle. He was the first among sinners, and so it was first to him that Christ showed patience and forgiveness.

It’s hard to admit our faults. It’s hard to claim our sins. And yet, Paul demonstrates that doing so is precisely what is most needed. Because it is not in our strength, but in our weakness that God is most manifest. It is not in our triumphs, but in our failures that God is most present. It is not in our obedience, but in our sins that God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s transformation becomes visible.

It’s good that we no longer preach sin so strongly that everyone feels always like a horrible, unloveable wretch. But in our world, that sometimes means that we have a hard time admitting our own faults, at least admitting them to the world. And so we end up in an inescapable prison of guilt, not sure what to do or where to go.

There is a tremendous power in admitting our wrongs and asking for forgiveness. It’s a counter-cultural thing to do, but there is great power in it. It is the only way that we can truly heal.

The translation we read this morning says, “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” However, it would be just as easy to translate it “Christ came into the world to heal sinners.” To me, that small change makes a bit of a difference. Being saved from sin seems like I just don’t get punished by God. But being healed is more than that. Being healed changes my wellbeing for the better. When I acknowledge my mistakes, when I ask forgiveness for what I have done wrong, when I do what I can to make things right, then there is not only forgiveness, there is also healing and transformation.

And that indeed is why Christ came into the world. Christ came into our human condition, our brokenness, our strife. Christ came into our world to save us, to heal us, to make us whole. Thanks be to God.

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