Sunday, 14 August 2011
Sin and riots
Sermon on Romans 8 12-17, St Matthew’s, 14 August 2011:
I was tempted to forget about the Lectionary readings this Sunday and just preach about the riots of last weekend. But then I wasn’t sure I wanted to seem to be add ing to the cacophony of voices that are seeking to explain those events. As Rowan Williams says, ‘Seeking explanations, it is worth remembering, is not the same as seeking excuses' but still there is always a danger that one leads to the other. Nevertheless this week the riots have been at the fore-front of our minds for many of us and it doesn’t seem right completely to ignore them: so I won’t.
Before the riots erupted in our streets I had been planning on talking about sin this Sunday. What I wanted to say about sin is basically this: that sin may seem something powerful and intractable but this is an illusion because Jesus – through his sinless life, death and resurrection – changes everything. I had proposed to talk about sin because, for the last three Sundays our epistle readings have all been from Romans and all have all touched upon the twin – and in Paul’s view related subjects - of sin and death.
Two Sundays ago I talked about death so this Sunday it seemed appropriate to focus on sin. Of course sin is not a subject which is particularly fashionable in most of the circles I – and perhaps you - frequent. When I was younger most of the sermons I sat through seemed to be about sin but nowadays I rarely hear one on the subject. So here is one.
And of course the subject of sin is relevant to the subject of the riots. Theresa May described the riots as ‘sheer criminality’. She might well have said they were ‘sheer sin’, though perhaps she thought criminality sounded worse than sin. And sin is now, of course, a term that people reserve for use in church rather than in secular circles.
At this point it might be worth clarifying what I think sin is.
Firstly of course it’s not just criminality in the sense of breaking the law of the land. There are some breaches of the law – like cycling through a red traffic-light - which are barely sins at all in my book and some sins – like sleeping with you best friend’s partner – which are not breaches of the law. But of course there is a connection between sin and law – God’s law if not man’s law. It might be worth pondering the extent to which one should reflect the other (but not today).
Secondly sin is not just, or even mainly, something we do. Rioting, looting, sleeping with one’s best’s friend’s partner, OK cycling though a red light are sins, sinful acts but they are not the whole of Sin with a capital S. Paul is clear that Sin is a thing – a powerful thing – encompassing, but more than, individual sins and that Sin like Death was a force which Jesus came to overcome. There are lots of verses in Romans which makes this clear e.g.: 6: 23 - ‘For the wages of sin is death; 7: 6 - ’Apart from the law sin lies dead.’; 8: 2 - ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death’
Thirdly sin is not just something we as individuals are liable to do or liable to be caught up in but also something we collectively do and are caught up in. In this connection I think it is helpful to think of ‘collective sin’ as opposed to ‘individual sin’. And I am not saying that there is no such thing as individual sin, just that it’s not the only type of sin and collective sin may be more important than we generally think. A riot is, in a sense, a type of collective sin which is more than just the sum of the individual acts of vandalism and theft.
We begin to recognise ‘collective sin’ in relation to children. When our children behave badly we feel that it is our fault. Conversely, of course, when they behave well we feel proud. Of course we are not solely responsible for the way our particular children behave: we are not the only reason that they have turned out the way they have, but we are partly.
We may, in addition, feel partly responsible for the behaviour of members of our families: not just our children but our brothers and sisters, our parents, our partners. I think we can see this when we get embarrassed when people we love behave in a particular way. It is as if their behaviour reflects on us in some way.
Then again if we are in a position of authority, at work for example, we may feel responsible at least in part for the behaviour of those who work for us. Perhaps even those who work with us or over us. So we dimly recognise that when others sin we too are implicated somehow. If those people are close to us, or people who we see as our responsibility, then this is easier to appreciate but I would argue that if we could but see it applies to everyone.
In the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky [p335] there is a monk called Father Zossima. Here is an extract from a passage towards the middle of the book where Father Zossima is dying and preaching to his disciples. ‘If you sin yourself and grieve unto death for your sins or for your sudden sin, then rejoice for others, rejoice for the righteous man, rejoice that if you have sinned he is righteous and has not sinned. If the evil doing of men moves you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evil-doers, shun that feeling. Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as though you were yourself guilty of that wrong. Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them.’
Now we probably feel indignation at the riots. It’s natural and right to do so. They are something which we should feel concerned about, even horrified by. But then the temptation is to look around for someone to blame for them – to feel indignation at the evildoers, in Father Zossima’s terms. Clearly the rioters had a hand in the riots. I am not denying that. But then so did their parents. And then there is the education system, the police, the Government. And what about ourselves? Do we not bear at least some responsibility?
Seeing sin as something bigger than just individual acts of bad behaviour makes sin out to be more pervasive, less easy to ignore, to distance ourselves from, perhaps more important than we have tended to think recently but also surely different to the way the world sees generally sees it. Because Christ has overcome sin, sin for Christians is transformed.
In my sermon two weeks ago I talked about death without talking about sin. And yet in Romans Paul cannot seem to mention the one without the other. There is I think at least three important relationships between the two.
Firstly and most obviously sin and death are connected because one leads to the other. The Genesis story of ‘the Fall’, to which Paul alludes in Romans on various occasions, tells us that in a cosmic sense sin leads to death but we can also see this from our own experience. Sin is destructive of people’s lives, both of the perpetrators and victims. Sin, in its worst expression, leads to the complete destruction of life, to death. It is surely not incidental that the riots began with the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, and led to the deaths of Shahzad and Harry Hussain and Musaver Ali in Birmingham.
Secondly sin and death are both something we have difficulties in acknowledging, particularly when it comes to ourselves. They are both taboo subjects. Death because we are afraid of it. Sin because we are ashamed of it. The temptation is always to see them as something that other people might be susceptible to but not something particularly relevant to ourselves.
But for Paul the deepest connection between sin and death comes because it is through Jesus’ death that sin is conquered. Here is the verse just before our epistle reading: ‘If the Sprit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.’ And the first two verse of our reading: ‘So then brethren, we are debtors not the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. ‘
Or in other words: because God raised Jesus from the dead, we are no longer to live according to our old sinful ways. But we have no choice in the matter because if we are driven by the Sprit (as it says in the next verse) we are automatically made children of God – living by a different set of perspectives and indeed rules: ‘If children then heirs…provided we suffer with him in order that we might be glorified with him.’
And here we are back to Father Zossima who suggests that it is only through our suffering that we can we fully appreciate that we are somehow responsible for everything. Here he is again: [p333] ‘Do not say: “Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, [the] evil environment is mighty and we are lonely and helpless and [the] evil environment is wearing us away…” Fly from that dejection, children! There is only one means of salvation , then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all man’s sin…for a soon as you make yourself responsible for everything and for all men you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things’
Paradoxically perhaps that is only though seeing ourselves to blame for everything that we become free of that blame though the power of Christ’s death. One of the consequences of this is that the Church might consider holding a national day of repentance for the riots: for the rioters, their parents, their teachers, their neighbours, their neighbours’ neighbours, their local councillors, their MP’s, for everyone in fact.
So to summarise: sin in general and the riots in particular may seem beyond our comprehension and without possibility of anyone doing anything about them but this is an illusion because Jesus – through his sinless life, death and resurrection – has already broken the power of sin and this changes everything. The first step in doing something about the riots is for everyone to repent!