Sermon: Sinners and Saints

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Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
5th of November, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12
1 John 3:1-3

Tuesday was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther possibly nailing his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, a day we celebrate for Luther’s insight that we are all sinners who are only justified, made right with God, through God’s grace. Wednesday was All Saints’ Day, a day that we Protestants now use to remember all those we love who have died and are now part of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. We are also reminded that we are called to be saints, too; to purify ourselves as God is pure. We are all sinners. We are all saints. For the Uniting Church, these two identities might be called our Reformed (Presbyterian and Congregationalist) identity, and our Pietist (Methodist) Identity. How do we reconcile them?

Before I do that, a brief excursus, just because it makes me laugh.  November the first, All Saints’ Day, was instituted by Pope Gregory in the ninth century to remember all the saints who might otherwise be forgotten, those without feast days of their own, without churches named in their honour or countries who claimed them as patrons. But the celebration of sainthood didn’t impress the Reformers in the sixteenth century. In 1543 John Calvin wrote a satire titled: A Very Useful Account concerning the Great Benefit that Christianity will Receive if it takes an inventory of all the sacred bodies and relics which are in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and other kingdoms and countries. In it he said that registers should be made of all the saints’ relics throughout Europe and then: ‘one would discover that each apostle has more than four bodies, and each saint at least two or three’. He also wrote of Mary, the mother of Jesus: ‘There is so much [milk held in churches] that if the holy Virgin had been a cow, and had she continued to nurse her whole life, she would have had great difficulty to give so much’. Given this scorn, it’s one of the achievements of the ecumenical movement that Catholics and Protestants now both celebrate All Saints’.

As we know, Luther’s great rediscovery, in the face of the church selling indulgences which were said to free souls from purgatory, was that sinners are justified, made right with God, only through God’s grace, which credit’s Christ’s righteousness to us, and not through anything that we ourselves do. We cannot earn our salvation, and we do not need to. God’s grace is enough. We as members of the Uniting Church are the descendants of the Swiss Reformers, rather than the German Reformers, through people like John Knox who took John Calvin’s insights to Scotland. So I’m going to turn from Luther to Calvin, even though we need to wait until 2036 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Calvin coming to Geneva. Later Calvinists have given Calvin a bad name, and as someone descended from Scottish Presbyterians I have frequently condemned him myself. This is partly because of the stories I’ve heard of the Scottish Calvinist practice of public discipline which made penitents sit on a special bench in church before the whole congregation, although historian Diarmaid MacCulloch reminds us that this public discipline only worked because people wanted it to work. But I also find Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity off-putting; the idea that nothing we do is free of sin.

‘Total depravity’ still sounds appalling to me, but the idea that nothing we do is free of sin it actually makes a lot of sense. Think about the ‘good’ things that we do. Do we do anything with absolute altruism, with no thought, expectation or experience of reward? I know that I don’t. In this role I spend a lot of my time caring for others, but that caring is never without reward. I’ve often said that there’s nothing that boosts my self-esteem so quickly as visiting people in aged-care facilities – they’re always so happy to see me. And I certainly feel wonderful about myself and the world after spending time with children. Even when I’m doing things that I find tiring and tedious, I have the comfort of knowing that I am the sort of ‘good’ person who does tiring and tedious things in the service of God. It supports my self-identity. And I’m not alone in that. If any of you think that you do anything out of pure altruism, I suggest that you might need to spend a wee bit more time in self-examination. But it’s okay; we won’t make you sit on a bench out the front.

This week Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s total depravity actually makes more sense of the world than optimistic creeds that see humans as inherently good. Using Calvin’s world view, the question is not: why are Australians allowing the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus to be mistreated? The question is: why are people willing to challenge that mistreatment? Thinking about the world this way has helped me get through this week.

The author Marilynne Robinson points out one great benefit of Calvin’s doctrine. She writes: ‘The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain.’ (‘Puritans and Prigs’) If we are all sinners, then none of us have any moral superiority. That’s quite an astounding thing to think, and completely counter-intuitive. Teetotallers have no moral superiority over drunkards. Vegans have no moral superiority over omnivores. Those who give away 10% of their income have no moral superiority over conspicuous consumers. Soldiers have no moral superiority over terrorists. Gillian Triggs has no moral superiority over Peter Dutton. I have no moral superiority over Lyle Shelton. We’re all in this together; all of us sinners saved only by the grace of God. We’re comrades in human solidarity, recognising in each other the same faults and failings that we find in ourselves.

John Wesley

That is one half of our heritage as the Uniting Church. But the other half of our heritage comes from Pietism and Evangelicalism through Methodism, and that part of our heritage that calls us to be saints. John Wesley believed that Christians were not merely justified, made right with God, they could be sanctified, made holy as God is holy. Wesley talked of Christian perfection. To the Calvinist part of my brain the term ‘Christian perfection’ is even more terrifying than ‘total depravity’. I’m much more comfortable with the idea that we’re all wretched sinners together than that we’re able to live holy lives. In my mind the idea that humans can think they’re holy is irrevocably connected to religious extremism and discrimination. And so it’s important to investigate exactly what Wesley meant, in the same way that it’s important not to blame Calvin for later Calvinism.

Wesley did not believe that humans could live sinless lives. He was very clear that he was not talking about ‘sinless perfection’. Nor did he imagine that Christians ever reached a point at which they were so perfect that they could not improve. Wesley explained that the difference between being perfect and being perfected is the difference between someone who is ready to run a race, and someone who is ready to receive the prize. Those who experience Christian perfection are those ready to run the race; the prize will only come at the end of their journey to God.

What reconciles Calvin and Wesley, the Uniting Church’s Reformed and Evangelical, Presbyterian and Methodist, strains? It is, of course, love. You won’t be surprised by that, since love is my favourite sermon topic. Christian perfection was, Wesley said, nothing else than loving God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind, and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. And human beings are able to do this only through God’s love. It’s by being renewed in God’s image through God’s grace that we’re able to be holy as God is holy, to love as God loves. As the Apostle John wrote: ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’ For Wesley the goal of Christian life is perfection in love of God and neighbour, and that’s only possible through God’s love of us and through our participation, by grace, in God’s love. Through the Holy Spirit breathing into us we are drawn into the mutual love that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Wesley believes that God’s love is so strong that it can produce genuine love for God and neighbour even in us.

I’m not sure that Calvin would agree, but he too believed that love of God could lead us to love our neighbour, in a way suitable to Calvin’s more pessimistic (or realistic) view of human nature. Marilynne Robinson quotes him as saying: ‘if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle. Whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God’. And: ‘Say “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image … Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider man’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its dignity allures us to love and embrace them’.

So, in this week in which we commemorate both Reformation Day and All Saints’ Day, let me try to combine Calvin and Wesley. We are all sinners, made right with God not through anything we do, but purely through God’s grace, which credits to us the righteousness of Christ. We are clothed in Christ, whatever is his becomes ours, and so we, in Calvin’s words, appear in God’s sight not as sinners but as righteous people. One implication of this is that we cannot claim to be superior to any other human being. We are all sinners, all equally dependent on God’s grace. Another implication is that experiencing God’s love, we are able in return to love God and our neighbour. Again, this isn’t through our own abilities, but through God’s gift. God’s love makes us holy, and that holiness means we are able to love. This is what Wesley means by Christian perfection. We are totally depraved and perfected. We are sinners and saints. We are loved by God and called to love. We love, because God first loved us. We are able to obey Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

I don’t know whether this attempt to combine Calvin and Wesley satisfies you. I’m not sure that it satisfies me! I am still wary of both ‘Christian perfection’ and ‘total depravity’; I think both can be, and have been, used in ways that lead Christians down dangerous paths. But I am certain that at the core of both Calvin and Wesley’s theology is an understanding of God’s limitless love, and so I’m going to end with one of my favourite passages from the Bible, from the first letter of the Apostle John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

This is the good news! Let us go out and live it. Let us love, as we are loved. Amen.

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