04.19.2015 Preaching Text: “You know that he was revealed to take away sins…” 1 John 3:5a)
Here it is the third Sunday in Eastertide, the 50-day period in the liturgical calendar that’s sole focus is the Resurrection. It is as well the culmination of Lent’s prescription of repentance and introspection. During Eastertide Christians celebrate new life, not just new life rising out of physical death, but a wholly new depth and quality to everyday living.
So why then are we hearing so much about sin in our readings, both last Sunday and this Sunday? Isn’t Lent over? Haven’t we had enough of hair shirts and self-flagellation?
Of course, at root, the Christian gospel is premised on the reality of sin. The gospel, that is, makes absolutely no sense without it. Why would we need a savior, after all, if everything’s already perfect?
No, Christianity begins with the fact of sin, but it doesn’t stop there. Or at least it shouldn’t. Its focus is instead on the restoration of joy and grace, life as our Lord and Creator intended it. This is the Good News.
Here’s where the Resurrection comes in, though, admittedly, it’s not always obvious just how the Resurrection changes anything.
For one, we’re told that through the Cross our sins are taken away. But how? How does somebody else’s death remove our guilt over our admittedly imperfect lives?
Before we answer this question, we first must ask why someone would even need to take away our sin or guilt. Why doesn’t God just wave a magic wand and set us free?
The traditional answer (and one we should consider carefully) has to do with justice. Is justice important in the ordering of human life? Does it matter? Most of us, I’m fairly certain, would agree that injustice should not be tolerated. Why? Because it causes the natural harmonious relations within life and nature to become distorted, skewed. The resultant suffering and harm is simply unacceptable, not just to God but to us as well.
If, then, there is no price to be paid for injustice, then bad behavior doesn’t matter. We are thus free to do as we please, consequences be damned.
Yet, as I say, we instinctively know this to be false. Anyone who has ever had a grave injustice done to him or her knows precisely what I’m saying. Justice matters. And justice demands a cost be paid, a balance restored, a peace reclaimed.
But why should Jesus, himself sinless, pay this price for us? The gospel’s answer, though seemingly nonsensical, is that only someone stronger and purer is even capable of paying such a price.
“If you think of debt,” writes C.S. Lewis in his classic text, Mere Christianity, “there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not.”
“Or,” he continues, “if you take ‘paying the penalty’ not in the sense of being punished, but in the more general sense of…’footing the bill,’ then, of course, it is a matter of common experience that, when a person has got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.”
Lewis later cites yet another example from everyday life: someone drowning in a rushing stream. It is the man with one foot on the dry river bank and one in the stream who is able to save the dying man.
Our fallen humanity has tried to set up its own world, according to its own likes and desires. This has left us incapable of saving ourselves. We have lost our way. We are drowning in the rushing stream. And no amount of striving will save us, or make us perfect, even as no amount of effort will establish for us eternal life. So God – Jesus Christ – must do it.
But how? Having paid the price for our rebellion against our Creator’s plan for the world’s well-being, God, by means of the Holy Spirit, has placed a “bit of himself” into us, as Lewis puts it.
Having been rendered, through sin, incapable of thinking clearly or loving effectively, we cannot save ourselves by means of our own resources. The only sort of help that can save us, logically, must come from beyond us. This outside help, using Lewis’ example, is akin to an adult holding a young child’s hand, and guiding it into forming letters for the very first time on a page.
And yet, even with this help, we still fall short.
Lewis writes: “A Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam- his is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts.” is
Confession, thus, not only recognizes our inevitable shortcomings, but it allows this “bit” of God, this “Christ-life” within us, to continue transforming us.
“A live body is not one that never gets hurt,” Lewis explains, “but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble – because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time…”
“That is why,” he continues, “the Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or – if they think there is not – at least they hope to deserve approval from good men.
“But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but God will make us good because He love us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.”
So the lectionary has it right. The Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ does not eliminate our need to repent. Eastertide is not a time to forget the ‘crooked timber’ of humanity, but to seek aspirationally its salvific healing by means of the loving Creator and Redeemer beyond us. Amen.