Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon: Romans 3:21 - 4:8 I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. For most of us, I suspect that’s something that’s taken for granted, a sort of, yes, of course I believe that, and quickly move on. After all, we’re in church, we’re meeting around the Lord’s table, sharing the Lord’s Supper, of course we believe in the forgiveness of sins. Like so much of the Apostles’ Creed, we can recite it in church (from memory) and yet never appreciate or realise just what we’re saying.

It’s a bit like the North Coast for me. Any time I get the chance, I love going for a drive up to the North Coast, pausing on the way round to enjoy the spectacular scenery. I dream of having a wee cottage with great views. Yet I know that after time, it would become so ordinary that I might not even notice it, wouldn’t marvel over it the way visitors would.

Could it be that way with the forgiveness of sins? Is there a need for us to slow down, pause, take stock, appreciate the view, and marvel at what the forgiveness of sins is all about? We’re hopefully going to do that this evening, as we concentrate on what Paul writes to the Romans from chapters 3 and 4, and illustrate from other parts of the Scripture as well.

As he begins his letter, Paul says that he is keen to come to Rome, in order to preach the gospel there too, and then he makes his big statement that drives the rest of the letter: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Rom 1:16) It’s all motherhood and apple pie type stuff - everyone is going to agree with it.

But then comes the bombshell. Think of Spotlight when they uncover a shocking story, and expose the details of dodgy dealings. Or think of the BBC investigation into phone hacking in the (former) News of the World - and how the story keeps on running. No one, it seems, is innocent, no one is safe.

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.’ (Rom 1:18) Paul chronicles the total depravity of man, how the Gentiles have turned away from the God who made them, descending into pagan idolatry. They ‘did not honour him as God or give thanks to him... claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images... they exchanged the truth about God for a lie...’

You can almost hear the Jews tut tut, as they gasp at the shocking sinfulness. Just like in the documentary, though, the biggest shock is yet to come - the Jew is just as sinful, just as guilty as the Gentile. In chapter 3, Paul heaps Bible verse on Bible verse to show that ‘all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.’ (3:9). The effect is that ‘every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.’

The whole world is on trial, and no one has any excuse, any mitigating circumstances. Guilty as charged. As the writer of Psalm 130 says, ‘If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?’ (Ps 130:3). As Paul puts it, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Rom 3:23).

It can be easy to see the sins of others, but sometimes we try to convince ourselves that we’re not so bad; we’re good, decent people, certainly better than Mr so-and-so down the street. This verse cuts right through our veneer of respectability - all have sinned; all fall short of the glory of God. We miss the mark. For a few years, I helped out at the Diocesan Confirmation Weekend at the Share Centre in Fermanagh (not far from my new parish!). Not fancying spending the morning in a cold Lough Erne, I volunteered to help with the archery. Sometimes the younger boys and girls didn’t have the strength to get the arrow down the course, they fell short. None of us can meet God’s standards, we all fall short.

Now thankfully, we don’t just stop there. God doesn’t show us our sin without showing us the Saviour; alongside the ‘bad news’ comes the good news that rescue is possible. Paul continues: ‘for all [types of people] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.’

You have sinned, yes, but you can be justified (just as if I’d never sinned), through the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross to take away your sins. He is the substitute, the one who takes our place, who bears the wrath that we deserved - it’s the reverse of those exchanges we saw in Romans 1 - so that this is the great exchange, as Paul would write in 2 Cor 5: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’

If you’ve ever attended a Christianity Explored Course, then you’ll remember the illustration of the room where everything you have ever done is recorded; or in the youth edition, it’s a room with TVs playing every second of your life, the hard drive with everything stored on it. There might be some good things to show, but lots of it we would be embarrassed, ashamed, if others were to see it.

Through what Jesus has done on the cross, all those sins are wiped away; they have been dealt with and so can be discarded. And how do we get rid of our sins? It’s not through working hard to remove them; not through attending church and reversing the balance; not by accumulating good credits to outweigh the bad. It’s simply by faith. It’s why Paul mentions Abraham - he heard God’s promise and believed; and it was counted to him as righteousness - being right with God, not by doing anything, but by believing. And again as Paul quotes from Psalm 32: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’

And how does all this happen? It’s because of what Jesus has done for us. His birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. All those things we’ve already looked at as we’ve gone through the Creed. The whole of the Christian faith hangs together - in a sense it’s like a jigsaw, we need every piece together to have the whole thing.

It’s not like a religious pick and mix where you think - yes, I want forgiveness of sins, but don’t want to bother about Jesus; or forgiveness of sins, yes, but I don’t want to have to think about the cross. Precisely becuase of who God the Father Almighty is; precisely because of who Jesus is and what he has done; precisely because of the work of the Holy Spirit - we can have those blessings at the end of the Creed: the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

But it would be remiss of me to stop there. As I’ve said, it can be fairly comfortable for us to hear about the forgiveness of sins; I’m pretty sure that most of us have experienced that blessing; we are rejoicing in having our sins dealt with; being justified by Jesus. But we can’t stop there. The fact that we have been forgiven must lead to a change in us. If you have been forgiven, then you must also be forgiving.

We acknowledge that every time we say the Lord’s Prayer - forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Isn’t it here that we find the challenge? Isn’t this the difficult part? Forgiving others, when you’ve experienced wrongs done against you; hurt by physical, verbal, emotional violence. Yet Jesus calls us to it, leaving us a pattern - remember how Jesus prayed for his persecutors, prayed for those who nailed him to the cross?

Perhaps even as I mention this, your sense of anger is rising; your call for justice expands - justice for your hurts, but mercy for your sins? Can we really expect this double treatment? As always, we find in the teaching of Jesus an example of the mercy we have received being passed on to others - read Matthew 18:23-35.

May we recognise the great debt we have been forgiven, and so forgive others when they harm us. The challenge is particularly apt as we prepare to share around the Lord’s Table and again aer confronted with the great love and mercy of the Lord Jesus. As I finish, let us hear those words of challenge and comfort from the introduction to the confession:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins,
and are in love and charity with your neighbours,
and intend to lead a new life,
following the commandments of God,
and walking from henceforth in his holy ways:
Draw near with faith,
and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort;
and make your humble confession to Almighty God,

After a moment of quietness, Margaret is going to come and lead us in our confession. But now, let us pause, and give thanks, for the fact that we can truly say: I believe in the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 24th July 2011.

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