Every Sunday, we start our Evensong service with one of a number of set sentences. I must be honest, sometimes I pick the sentence based on a whim or a gut feeling; sometimes I look through and try to find one that is appropriate for the tone of the rest of the service and the sermon, and sometimes, I completely forget until the time comes to read one out, and I just pick the first one my eyes hit upon – nobody tell Huw, ok?!
This evening, however, picking the appropriate sentence was what is known as a ‘no-brainer’. Very little decision had to go into choosing the right introduction for tonight. It was the only sentence with which I could start this evening’s service. I’ll repeat it now:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Why did I pick that sentence tonight? Well, it ties in with our reading from the New Testament that we heard earlier on. Now, there are some strong words here in this letter: “no one who abides in Christ sins; no one who sins has ever seen him or known him.”, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil”, “Those who have been born of God do not sin”. Compare and contrast that with our earlier sentence – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is no in us”.
There’s some serious conflict here, isn’t there? Our letter-writer and the writer of our introductory sentence look to have some major theological differences. One of them says ‘we all sin’, and the other says ‘Christians do not sin’. These statements seem in diametric opposition to each other – one wonders what these two writers would have had to say to each other if they ever met. Might it, perhaps, have caused a schism in the early church? It surely would have led to – at the very least – a robust, heated debate.
But… I’m being disingenuous. The writers of these statements did come face-to-face. Well, if they ever looked at their reflection in a mirror, that is. They were one and the same; the same person. All of these statements were written by St John.
Perhaps, then, this theological conflict was down to time? Maybe John’s views matured, or changed, as he grew in his faith?
That is – of course – possible. It happens to us all. We grow, learn and change our mind as our experience changes us. Trouble is, very few of us do it over the course of writing one letter. These statements are all in the same book of the Bible – the first letter of John! The introductory statement is from the beginning of chapter 1, and our reading was from chapter 3. That really is some turnaround, isn’t it?
Perhaps there is no conflict, then? Perhaps these statements are not mutually exclusive after all? Maybe we’re just reading them wrong?
Some background as to the purpose of John’s letter is probably helpful here. John is writing to a specific group of Christians to warn them about those who are trying to deceive them. He warns them off from following false-teachers, especially those who do not believe that Christ had a real, physical presence. Crucially, the side-effects of this belief in the importance of the spiritual over the physical was a tendency of those who taught these things to side-line anything earthly or bodily. The only things that mattered, said these believers, were the spirit and the mind. What you thought mattered. What you did did not.
And so, in the context of these teachings, John is careful to point out that sin exists, it is real, and that the early Christians should not be deceived by people who pretended that only spiritual things mattered, and the things you said and did, and the way you behaved had no relevance in the spiritual realm, or in Real Life.
On top of this, our confusion as to the exclusivity of these passages isn’t helped by our translation in chapter 3. Where we heard ‘no-one who abides in Christ sins’, the Greek verb for ‘sin’ here implies a sense of ongoing time. We might better translate it ‘no-one who abides in Christ continues in sin’. Given the context of John’s letter too, I think we’re correct to assume there’s also a sense of deliberation here too. No-one who abides in Christ makes a conscious decision to keep sinning. Sin, says John, matters. If your spiritual leaders keep on sinning, they are not who they claim to be, and not a representation of the Christ they claim to know. Know them by their fruit.
So… what’s the point of all of this? Why have I bothered to go into this?
I think there are some interesting parallels to some of the worldly goings-on over the past week or so. John was writing to warn the early church about those who emphasised the spiritual over the physical; those who said that one element mattered more. In an odd twist, I think we can fall into a similar trap with this very letter.
In our initial reading of this passage, we found ourselves in an either/or situation: either those who abide in Christ do not sin, or none of us are without sin. But… both are true. Those who abide in Christ do not continue in deliberate sin AND none of us are without sin. I think, if we emphasise one of these aspects over the other – like the false-teachers John warns us of – we open ourselves to danger.
If we only focus on the later message – the one we heard in our reading – about those who abide in Christ not continuing in sin, we are in danger of idolising our leaders, seeing them as people who can do no wrong. In the same vein, we question our own salvation, knowing full-well our failure to live up to this exhortation of sinlessness. We know only too well the danger to be found in assuming our leaders in the political world (such as Cyril Smith), and in the church can do no wrong – abuse in the church has been allowed to fester unchallenged as people refused to believe that spiritual people were capable of such horrible acts, and those who committed them refuse to acknowledge their own sin.
If, however, we only focus on the first statement, that we deceive ourselves if we claim to be without sin, we can find ourselves tumbling down the murky path of moral equivalence – that as we are all sinners, all sins should be treated the same… and it is that error that ensures we give permission to such figures as Harvey Weinstein to effectively shrug off his abuse allegations by us placing blame on his victims for not speaking out, and allowing him to blame his attitude on growing-up in the 60’s and 70’s. It also ensures religious authorities such as the American right-wing evangelical, Jerry Falwell Jr can write off President Trump’s vulgar and abusive comments about grabbing women with the phrase that every one of us is a sinner who has done things we wish we hadn’t, without requiring any form or repentance or change in behaviour from the supposed leader of the free world.
|When Trump met Weinstein|
The two views are sides of a coin. We need both. We must acknowledge that – yes – all have sinned, and we will all continue to fall into sin, but also that we are called to something higher; that sin is not to be shrugged-off or appeased, but that it prevents us from continually abiding in Christ, and in communion with our fellow people, and we can, and must, do something about it. As John continues in our introductory statement – all have sinned, but “if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”