The Benefit Of Knowing That We Are Sinners

Year C, Proper 20: 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Sunday, September 16, 2007

First, I think that I ought to warn you that this is going to be an evangelistic sermon. Unfortunately, the word “evangelical” has been somewhat spoiled. For many these days, all-too-often it seems to bring to mind such things as rigid life-patterns, constricted biblical interpretation, and narrow political agendas. However, I think that all Christians are responsible to reclaim the word. It’s a wonderful, classic word, after all; coming from the Greek word for Gospel. And in spite of what has sometimes happened with it (on the American religious scene, especially), it’s both an honorable title and an important stream of Christian tradition. This is particularly so in the context of Anglican experience. I believe it critical in present times that Episcopalians—across our spectrum—reclaim and re-apply this dimension of our identity. In this sermon, an evangelistic appeal will be set before you. There; warning duly offered!

In today’s Lesson from First Timothy we heard: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” (1:15)

This is language rather foreign to modern sensibilities of devotion. Yes, there are some potential risks to penitential piety. And certainly, such piety has been misused in the course of Christian history. Its principal risk is that it can lead us right back to the self-absorption we were trying to leave behind—an unhealthy loop leading to more entrenched isolation. An inverse narcissism (a narcissism working through pain rather than pleasure) is still narcissism! Furthermore, to be honest, penitential piety has sometimes been abused by the church as a means of manipulating its people.

Nevertheless, acknowledgement of our sinfulness, acknowledgement of our call to on-going repentance are an undeniable part of our faith. It’s not for nothing that almost every Episcopal worship service includes a confession of sin.

Whether it feels congenial to us or not, we find ourselves directed to engage with a kind of “spirituality” in which today’s Scripture makes sense: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

Far from being a passage tucked out of the away, this verse has been much used in Christian devotion. John Bunyan, the great puritan writer, paraphrased it for the title of his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

Language like this is no mere rhetorical flourish. However, it does not mean that we have to try to convince ourselves that we’re personally worse than the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Osama Bin Laden. We’re not talking here about comparative spiritual evaluation. Here’s what this kind of language is meant to mean: If we’re at all spiritually awake, we should be more acutely aware of our depths than we are of the depths of any others. That is, we should be more aware of our own delusion, egoism, hurtfulness, and betrayals than those we’re able to perceive in others. If the worst in us were isolated, enshrined, empowered, and able “to get away with it”—who knows what we’d be capable of? Lord, have mercy—on us and on those around us.

Therefore, even in a characteristically progressive, open church such as ours, we can speak very authentically of the benefits of knowing ourselves to be sinners. It is to these benefits that invite us to direct our attention this morning. However, before proceeding any further, before we look at any specific benefits, we should affirm that knowing ourselves to be sinners is worth it, first of all, simply because it is the truth. Truth is always worth knowing, in itself. Or maybe, we might better say, “Truth is always worth knowing, in Himself.” Did not Jesus say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”? (John 14:6)

In any case, truth is always worth knowing, completely apart from our immediate assessments of congeniality, helpfulness, or advantage. That we might experience truth as “beneficial” is really a bonus—we might say, a fringe benefit. But, graciously (and we remember that “grace,” theologically, means unmerited favor), the truth (and the One Who Is the Truth) is our ultimately loving benefit.

Praise be!

So we continue, now, with our theme: the benefits of knowing ourselves to be sinners. I’m setting these forward, for our consideration, under the headings of five particular capacities.

The first benefit that I would name (and I’m saving the best for last) is the capacity of seeing how we contribute to situations that we don’t like—instead of just blaming or judging others. How quickly, how firmly, we seize on to the partial fault of those with whom we are in some difficulty— so we can lay to their account all the blame. There’s a real relief we can feel when we’ve played a successful round of the “Gotcha!” game. We’re safe; we’re off the hook. Yet each time we pull this off, there’re a little less of us, deep down. Our souls are diminished.

We become infatuated with our “victim-status.” Ironically, when human beings are swept up by notions of our own victimhood—either personal or corporate—it is precisely then that we can be at our most injurious, most unjust, most hurtful. So, the capacity of seeing our own contributions to the sinful mix of fault and fallibility can be nothing less than life-saving.

The second benefit of knowing ourselves to be sinners that I’m setting before us may be a little more complicated. (At least, we often make it more complicated.) I’ll ask you to bear with me for a little bit, before I summarize it as another capacity. I’ll start by saying that this benefit allows us to be not nearly so likely of habitually reducing—or habitually discounting—the good things done for us to merely the unremarkable payment of what we have coming to us, anyway—while viewing anything other than what we deem “the best” as a personal outrage. To put it more simply; this is a benefit that allows us to be at least twice more likely to say, “Thank you,” than complain.

To summarize this one: knowing ourselves to be sinners notably increases our capacity of appreciation and gratitude in an imperfect world in which it will always be possible to find some fault.

Now, proceeding to the third benefit; which I’d say is the capacity of sharing concerns with our fellow sinners, when we need to do so, gently and affirmingly—and with the least needful amount of applied force. Using more than really needful force in personal conflict is inherently sinful. By so doing we become men and women “of violence.”

The flip side of this is the ability to receive expressions of concerns well: that is, non-reactively, nondismissively, giving the benefit of the doubt—even (and I think this key, here); even when others have not communicated in perfect manner. Again, there’s a sadly soul-diminishing relief we can feel when we relate to another like this (even if the words aren’t fully articulated): “You didn’t express yourself in just the right way. ‘Gotcha!’ I—or we—don’t need to pay any attention to what you were trying to say.” Such a move, indeed, can be very effective for the agenda of ego-protection—protecting what we think we want. But it’s also isolating and corrosive. However, graciously for us sinners, another way of relating in the midst of conflict has been opened to us. Being able to really hear others usually goes right along with a healthy level of self-suspicion.

Going on to the fourth benefit: in knowing ourselves to be sinners we find the capacity of being forgiving. This forgiveness-business will always be one of the greater challenges in living out our faith. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” as we pray all the time in the Lord’s Prayer. It should be more of an attention-getter than it usually is. That “as we forgive” bit; maybe we ought to find that more worrisome than we do! Of course, we’re not talking about trying to purchase God’s forgiveness by “working up” our own forgiving! That would be desperate enterprise; doomed to fail. What the Prayer does teach us is that we can’t really be receiving the forgiveness that comes from God unless we’re also passing it on to others.

We get confused about forgiveness. It isn’t denial, or minimization, or enabling. Neither is it some sort of emotional certification that the other has “fixed” things to our satisfaction. Forgiveness means remission of debt. Sometimes, in this world of ours, dealing with grave trespass, we may have to speak of “release” rather than “remission.” But, in either case, with different ramifications for where the relationship goes from there, in forgiveness we say to another, “I am no longer going to live as your creditor.”

And in all cases, our own forgiving is uniquely enabled in our lively awareness that we are sinners; that if before the face of God, we were dependent on our own earning or fixing, we would be in big trouble.

Paradoxically, a part of this capacity of forgiveness is the appropriate measure of self-compassion.

We are freed from the human-based, human-centered perfectionism with which we so often afflict ourselves.

None of this means that we’re nonchalant in regard to sin. We’re not at all talking about the caricature of faith in Christ that W. H. Auden puts on the lips of Herod in For the Time Being. “Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged’.” (For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, “The Massacre of the Innocents”) Rather, the right way of looking at sin and forgiveness involves authentic knowledge of who we are, where we are, and where we are going—all of which rests, first of all, on the knowledge of God.

Which brings us, now, to the last of our five; the best for last (or, with greater spiritual accuracy, the first for last):

With the knowledge that we are sinners, we meet the capacity to know—to know ever more deeply—that God has forgiven us. Out of this gracious knowledge comes our following ability to ask and to receive forgiveness from one another.

Seeing how we contribute to situations we don’t like, appreciation and gratitude in an imperfect world, gentleness and affirmation even in conflict, being forgiving, receiving forgiveness, sinners that we are. Such knowledge, such benefits, such capacities are from God: the Gifts of God for the People of God.

We find, at the end, that this penitential piety we initially may have found off-putting—may have resisted—is not debilitating but empowering. This last week I ran across a striking quote. Here it is: “Repentance is not…self-loathing. Repentance is insight.” (Frederica Matthewes-Green, cited in Fleming Rutledge’s Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “The Enemy Lines Are Hard to Find”)

“Repentance is insight.” So, we’re never to lose heart. If crushed by the weight of all that is lacking—all that is amiss, we are to know that Christ came precisely for the likes of us. More than this; even in our brokenness, with healing almost always incrementally manifested, we become signs of Grace, instruments of Redemption in this needy world.

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” (1:15-17)

I’ll conclude with a question, respectfully addressed to each one present: Dear fellow-sinner, how goes it? Do you yet know? In Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God, dwelling among us; in this LordCrucified and Raised from death, do you yet know that Grace has abounded for you, the Chief of Sinners?

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