Breaking the power of sin
I wonder why you are here today. I am here because I believe that the overcoming of sin in peoples’ lives is one of the most encouraging and vigorous demonstrations of the power of the risen Christ, and I want to see more of it. If we are to see more of this power, then I would like to suggest that there are three truths to understand and three things to do.
The first truth underpins both the readings that we have heard. This truth is that we are all sinners. In his prayer Daniel acknowledges that every member of the people of God has sinned, has disobeyed God, and broken the covenant commitments of their faith. Similarly, in the prayer Jesus taught his followers he teaches them to pray for forgiveness of their sins. Jesus knew that his followers would continue to sin, throughout their lives, otherwise he would not have taught them to ask for forgiveness every time they prayed.
It seems to me that this is one of the most important truths about ourselves, and about each other, that we have to understand if we are to grow in faith. This truth is reinforced, explicitly, elsewhere in the Bible. In Romans, Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In his first letter, John writes, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Our starting point is that we are all sinners. I have sinned. I am a sinner. Every single one of us here has sinned. We are all sinners.
The second truth is revealed in the language of the readings that we have heard. It is all about “us”. Daniel is an individual, praying on his own, and yet he continually says, “we”. He stands with every other member of the people of God and in fellowship with them, confesses sin and prays for forgiveness. All the way through Jesus’ prayer he teaches us to pray “us”. Give us, forgive us, lead us. There is a community aspect to all Christian life, and it seems to me, especially to confession and forgiveness. This is shown in James’ letter, ”Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” In our dealings with sin there is no getting away from the fact that we need each other.
The third truth is that forgiveness is available. Again this is clear in both the Biblical prayers that we are looking at. Daniel, centuries before Jesus came and demonstrated God’s victory over sin and death, believed that God’s character meant that forgiveness was available. That belief made him bold enough to pray, insistently, “Lord, listen!, Lord forgive!”. Jesus’ prayer also assumes that forgiveness is available to those who ask for it and are willing to receive it. This prayer was given to the disciples before Jesus proved it. How much more can we pray it with faith, now that we have witnessed the resurrection? The availability of forgiveness to us is also seen in the sentences that follow the ones that we heard earlier from Paul and John,
“ and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”
So, there are three truths, we have all sinned, we need each other, and forgiveness is available. So what? What are we meant to do with those truths? I would like to suggest that there are three things that we are called to do in response to them.
The first is to prepare for confession. If we take seriously the reality that we are all sinners, then I believe that there are implications for the way in which we prepare to confess our sins.
I remember going for an interview with Bishop Gordon just before my second ordination and we were talking about the challenges of having a young family to get to church and the necessity to change gear from getting the children to have breakfast, get dressed, get coats and shoes on and then get to church and suddenly be ready to lead the people of God in worship. He shared with me that when he had been in that position he had taken time the evening before to pray for the service, and, in particular, to examine his conscience for things that he would confess during the prayers of penitence during the service.
This idea of preparing for confession might seem a bit odd. Why not just confess the sins as you think of them. But, it does occur again and again in the great Christian writers. It even seems to me to be evident in Daniel’s prayer. He is specific about where the people of Israel have gone wrong. He has obviously thought about their history and the way in which things have been done in the past.
The story is told of a young man who was going off to university. As he was packing his mum gave him a big laundry sack and told him to put his dirty washing in it through the week, and then take it to the laundrette to wash it. So, he did as he was told and filled the bag through his first week. Saturday came, and he went to find the laundrette. He did as he had been told, put the laundry in the machine and switched it on, and sat and watched it. “thump thump thump” as he sat there, one of his fellow students came over and said, “I think it might work better if you take the clothes out of the bag.”
Maybe our confession would also work better if we took the dirty laundry out of the bag. The point here is not unending, guilt ridden, introspection. It is about spirit-inspired self examination that allows us to come to confess our sins in a way that frees us to be thoroughly forgiven.
In fact it is possible that in the process of preparing to confess our sins, we may find that we are not actually guilty. There are some streams of Christian tradition that seem to suggest that if something is going wrong, or if there is pain, then sin must be at the bottom of it. This seems to me to miss out the reality of the pruning actions of God. Just as every good gardener does, God prunes healthy plants to encourage fruitfulness. In our self examination as we prepare for confession we might discover that as we reflect on things causing us pain we are not given conviction by the Holy Spirit, but reassurance that this too will end, as we persevere in faithfulness.
Having prepared, I think that the second thing we need to do is to reclaim the power of confessing our sins to one another. I am afraid that too often I allow my shame to cut me off from that power. You see, when the fear of shame prevents me from sinning then it is good for me. However, when shame stops me from telling others about the sin that I am struggling with then it is bad for me.
Let me illustrate this by describing two different ways of thinking.
Imagine that I believe that I am the only person in my church who sins. I feel ashamed of that sin. I don’t believe that others will understand or forgive. So, I don’t tell anyone, I keep it a secret. I struggle along on my own, trying to overcome it. There are two possibilities. I might overcome that sin, but even then the temptation to pride in my ability to defeat sin is a real risk and even if I avoid that, nobody else knows what God has done for me in freeing me from that sin. On the other hand I might continue to fall to that sin. I become discouraged, my conscience becomes seared, it is too painful to think about, I give up, I might even bring scandal to the church.
Now imagine that I believe that everybody in my church sins. I know that we are in this together, and that forgiveness is available. I share the struggle that I am having with trusted friends. We work together to break the hold that sin has on me. My friend asks me awkward questions and prays for me. When I fall a friend is there to pick me up. When I overcome we are both encouraged, and I know that there is no room for pride, but only rejoicing for us both in experiencing the power of God to free us from sin.
Our Anglican pattern of general confession, especially when prepared for thoroughly, is an excellent discipline for keeping short accounts with God. However, it does not seem to me to have the potential for building up the body of Christ that can be found by telling it how it is, by confessing, to each other.
Of course, I know that this has to be done appropriately, and there are characteristics that a church will need to have if it is to be a safe place to do this. There does need to be trust, accountability, love, forgiveness, and discretion. But, I believe that if we were to take what might seem like risky steps towards being more transparent with each other about our struggles with sin then we would see these things develop as God works in our fellowships.
Having prepared, and confessed to each other, the third thing for us to do is to give and receive forgiveness. Jesus links these two very clearly in the prayer that he left for us. Our capacity to receive forgiveness is directly related to our capacity for giving it to others.
I believe that we are more likely to be able to receive our forgiveness if we prepare for our confession thoroughly, and if we share our struggles with each other. With these things in place we can know that we have not hidden anything from God, and we don’t have to depend on our own feeling of forgiveness, we can hear it from others who walk alongside us.
However, even with these things in place, if we will not forgive others then that will prevent us from receiving our forgiveness in all its fullness.
How to forgive others is a huge subject, about which much has been written and said. I cannot do justice to it all today, but I do want to make a couple of suggestions, based on what we have already thought about.
The first is that in order to forgive someone else, preparation is useful. As with our laundry bag in the washing machine, saying “sorry for everything” doesn’t tend to lead to a thorough confession, so trying to forgive everybody for everything doesn’t tend to allow thorough forgiveness. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you forgive massive injury, one sin at a time. Without becoming oppressive, an honest examination of what has happened or what was said may help us to do this. It might also allow us to see where forgiveness is needed, and where actually we need to ask for forgiveness.
The second suggestion is that we don’t have to forgive on our own. God has put us in a family. This is not permission to go and tell everybody else at church what that so and so said to me yesterday. This is an encouragement not to walk alone. If we are struggling to forgive someone, or even to want to forgive them, or even to want to want to forgive them, then that is a struggle that we can share. We don’t have to share how we have been hurt, or who has sinned against us, but we can tell others that we are struggling, and that we need their support.
I said earlier that I am here tonight because I believe that the overcoming of sin in the lives of the people of God is one of the most encouraging and vigorous demonstrations of the power of the risen Christ, and I want to see more of it. I believe that we will see more of this power as we realise that we are all sinners, that we are in this together, and that forgiveness is available. As those truths take root in our hearts we will prepare to confess our sins, we will confess our sins to each other and we will give and receive forgiveness. All to the glory of God. Amen.