This month from the Reverend Nigel Jones
Do you need to be perfect to live with God? You are probably reading this some time not far from 26 February, Ash Wednesday. At St Andrew’s on this day we are exhorted to “turn away from sin”. But how? What should we do in response to these words?
I am writing this in January when we have just been hearing the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
But what does this mean? How does Jesus take away the sin of the world?
Clearly not by making everything perfect. The world carries on pretty much as normal. Human beings, including Christians, continue to live in a state of imperfection, which we call sin, including but not limited to, moral imperfection.
So how then? Jesus’ death and resurrection have not returned us to the Garden of Eden. We still sin and we still have pain in childbirth. We still have to till the soil by the sweat of our brow and deal with thorns and thistles. All the consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience are still with us. Snakes are still horrid. The little child still cannot put its hand on the adder’s den. That remains an eschatological hope, a hope of a heaven to come.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. One way we think about these words as fulfilled is in the promise of life with God in the future, that we will be in Paradise in the life beyond this one. Perhaps as Christians we should think and proclaim more often and more confidently that we are looking forward to going to heaven!
But we’re certainly not there yet. For now, it seems that the Christian solution to the world’s brokenness and sin is to accept it. God’s forgiveness of our imperfection, and our forgiveness of one another’s. And acceptance of all the pain and suffering of this life, as we identify with not a Greek God on Mount Olympus, but a crucified God here in the midst of the sin of the world.
I sometimes come across evangelical Christians who object to a regular saying of a confession because they sought God’s forgiveness when they became Christians and now, as the first letter of John tells us, if anyone is in Christ he does not continue to sin. But whatever those words are supposed to mean, they clearly do not mean that people become morally perfect when they become Christians. A regular confession, whether formal in liturgy or, much more powerfully in my experience, informally between you and God – asking for forgiveness is ongoing and will never end this side of the grave.
So does Jesus take away the sin of the world by a kind of acceptance of human sin? By making it kind of OK. And by declaring God’s never-ending forgiveness, like in the father of the Prodigal Son? But not once: every day?
You might say, that’s not taking away the sin of the world, that’s just compromising with it. Well of course it is. Clearly the world remains a sinful place. Morally deficient and full of brokenness and pain.
Or you could say, as critics of Christianity sometimes do, well that just means that you can live your life however you want, sin away, and it doesn’t matter because you can just say sorry. But if that is your attitude then you are not really saying sorry. Seeking God’s forgiveness inevitably means repentance. You haven’t got to convince anyone else that you mean it – only God.
And although there are no doubt plenty of people who go by the name of Christian who do live insincere and unrepentant lives, we also know many people whose Christian faith has led and continues to lead them to be the most moral, virtuous, courageous, self-giving and loving people on this planet. That’s not necessarily famous heroes of the faith. It might be the old man who lives next door.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” How? Clearly not by waving a magic wand and returning this world to the state of the Garden of Eden. So how?
By declaring that it is OK to be a sinful human being. By accepting that that is the only state in which you can be human. By asserting that God loves and accepts us as we are, despite our imperfection. By challenging, maybe, the widespread belief that you need to be perfect to live with God?
The Cross of Christ is sometimes described as God taking responsibility for the brokenness of creation.
Whether you take this as licence not to try to follow God’s ways, or whether you respond in love and gratitude and seek to follow him, will be up to you.
Nigel Jones is the minister at St Andrew’s Church