Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Second Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of my podcast for the Second Sunday of Easter.

The Second Sunday of Easter

Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2

Last week’s podcast for Easter was in two parts. In it, I looked at the death of Jesus and how it is popularly understood. I argued that, in the New Testament, the death of Jesus is understood very differently to how it is commonly understood, even in our churches.

I suggested that the contemporary way of understanding the death of Jesus uses bits of the New Testament to construct a model for understanding the death of Jesus. On this understanding, the death of Jesus was as a consequence of the life he led and the teaching he gave. What matters now is not that he died, but that he is alive and calls us to follow his example of love and acceptance of people, keeping his teaching as we reach out to those who are oppressed and in need.

I said in my talk that this popular understanding of the death of Jesus leaves out crucial elements, which are essential to the New Testament understanding of the death of Jesus. We can identify four in particular:

Firstly, in the New Testament, the death of Jesus is central to what Jesus came to do.

Secondly, the death of Jesus is seen as a sacrifice for sin.

Thirdly, the death of Jesus is divinely ordained.

Fourthly, the death of Jesus satisfies the justice of God

In the New Testament, the main purpose of Jesus’ life and death is to deal with our sin. Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin according to the plan and purpose of God to satisfy God’s demand for justice. Jesus’ death wasn’t as a consequence of what he came to do; it was what he came to do. Yes, of course, Jesus’ life and death teaches us more, but the more it teaches is based on this understanding of it.

For example, Jesus, by dying for our sins ‘according to the Scriptures’, also gives us an example of how we are to live as his followers by denying ourselves and taking up our cross (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ death in obedience to the will of God shows us that, in our service of God, we are to have the same mind as he had (Philippians 2:5). We too are to become ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8).

But we cannot love and serve God or love others as Jesus commanded us to unless sin is dealt with in our lives. The Cross was a one-off event, but it is an event that still has power and relevance in the present. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus’ death (Romans 6:3). We are now to become like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).

I have been quoting from St Paul, but St Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus is one that is also shared by all the New Testament writers. Indeed, St Paul himself makes the point that the understanding of Jesus’ death that he shared with people when he first preached to them was one that he himself had received from other believers (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 15:3).

We see this shared understanding in our reading this week from the first letter of St John. St John writes:

‘… the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:7)

St John tells those he is writing to:

‘… he [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.’ (1 John 2:2)

We resist what the New Testament tells us about the death of Jesus, because we don’t want to be confronted with the truth about ourselves. The New Testament repeatedly tells us that our problem as human beings is our sin and that we are all, without exception, sinners. So why do we find it so hard to accept this plain teaching? As I have said many times, the dominant worldview of people today is one that puts ‘self’ at the centre.

We have an extremely high opinion of ourselves and our abilities. It is an opinion that flies in the face of the evidence. Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we persist in telling ourselves that we are fundamentally good and that there is nothing we cannot do or achieve if we but put our minds to it and follow our dreams. Self-fulfilment and self-realization, doing and being what we want to do and be, is what we are constantly told our life is, or should be, all about.

We simply don’t want to admit and face up to the fact that we are sinners by birth and choice, incapable of freeing ourselves from sin’s power and influence in our lives. Even when we are prepared to admit that we are capable of sin and wrong-doing, we want to minimize and relativize it. We point instead to the good we do and ignore the bad. We see ourselves as more sinned against than sinning.

Increasingly in our age, sin is seen in non-personal terms. So, we talk instead about institutional and systemic sin: sins such as sexism and racism. We prefer to focus on society’s evils rather than our own. This allows us to be angry about sin without having to take any direct and personal responsibility for it. St John explicitly challenges this attitude.

St John tells his readers that ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Worse still, St John writes, ‘if we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 John 1:10). When we refuse to admit that we personally are sinners, not only are we refusing to face up to the truth about ourselves, we are calling God a liar, because God has plainly and unambiguously told us that we are sinners, so sinful, in fact, that it was only the death of his Son that could deal with our sin.

The Risen Jesus, in this week’s Gospel reading, makes forgiving and retaining people’s sin central to the task he commissions his disciples to do (John 20:23). The Gospel the Church is entrusted to proclaim is the good news that if we confess our sins, that is to admit fully to them without reservation and qualification, God through Jesus will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all that is wrong.

St John tells those he is writing to that he is writing these things so that they may not sin (1 John 2:1). St John wants us to stop sinning, but, knowing our weakness, he also continues to tell us that if we do sin, Jesus is on our side. Jesus understands and forgives. But he cannot forgive what we refuse to admit; he cannot give what we refuse to accept.

It is like someone who has got seriously into debt. A friend pays off the debt for them, but the person in debt refuses to admit there was ever a problem and continues to live in poverty. They won’t accept either the reality of their situation or what their friend has done for them.

As long as we persist in the delusion and lie that we are not sinners, we remain in our sin. Jesus has commissioned me as a priest to tell you that if you refuse to accept that you are a sinner who needs forgiving, then your sins are retained, and you face the judgement and condemnation of God (John 20:23).

This really is serious, and we need to start taking it more seriously. It is not a game or something we say in Church because we are expected to but can then forget the rest of the time.

This is a matter of life and death: yours and mine.

For an addict freedom and healing begin when the addict is prepared to admit openly and unreservedly that they are an addict. As addicts to sin, join me today in saying for yourself:

‘I’m Ross and I am a sinner. I’m Ross and God has forgiven my sins and cleansed me from all unrighteousness.’

Thanks be to God that he is ‘faithful and just’.


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