I want to talk to you this morning about the reality of sin and the cross of our Lord. In a way these are matters of great simplicity. Their simplicity prompted St. Paul to point out that to the wise of this world the Gospel is utter foolishness. At its most basic level Christianity makes an historic claim about Jesus of Nazareth which if it is true has universal significance for all humanity.
Now, what is the popular conception of sin? The popular conception of sin is that it is an action condemned by the Bible that we are able to do or not to do. Sin, in this view, is one step up from a mistake; it is an avoidable action that one may or may not be sorry for. The Bible's view of sin is much more complex and stark. According to the Bible, sin is a like a disease that has infected all humanity, without exception. Sin brings about spiritual death, separation from God and alienation from one another. God is the source of life and of ultimate meaning, but in this separated state, humanity is exiled from God's presence. Sin puts enmity between one another: children against parents, husbands against wives, brothers against brothers. The Bible says that we are born into sin, into this state of separation from God and and from one another, and that the ultimate sign of this is death. Death is the shroud, the prophet Isaiah says, that enfolds all people. The Bible also says that we are powerless to do anything about this separation. Humanity has devised countless home remedies of how to fix this separation and fill the emptiness of life without God: retail therapy, alcohol and narcotics, sex without intimacy, money and power.
Now sin comes in a variety of forms. One such form is social sin. The 20th century is replete with examples of social sin, and this is in stark contrast to the great optimism of social progress during the same period. Social sin is summarized in the truism, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Social sin has put into our vocabulary holocaust, killing field and apartheid. Social sin is not the extent of sin, and we know this because we may feel complicit for these sins but none of us feels compelled to bear the sole responsibility for a particular social sin.
Another form of sin is simple transgression of God's law. When we speak of God's law in our liturgy we usually mean the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue. In the traditional catechism children learn three things: the Lord's prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments. Now, I wonder how we each measure up to the Ten Commandments. The first two commandments are about giving God his due and not committing idolatry. Now the common conception of idolatry is that it has to do with bowing down and worshiping images and statues. Now that certainly is idolatry, but it is not the full extent of idolatry. Idolatry is anytime one gives to something or someone that is not god that which is due to God. When our greatest hope is for material goods or a perfect family or worldly success we are giving to what is not god what is due to God. Idolatry then is far more common that we might be apt to think. In fact, John Calvin is quoted as saying the human heart is an idol factory. The third commandment is do not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. This fairly well covers both cursing and hypocrisy, hypocrisy being when we pretend to be something that we know we are not. Most religious people I know are generally excellent at this. The fourth commandment is about keeping holy the sabbath day. We might ask ourselves is Sunday set aside as a day dedicated to the Lord, a kind of first fruits of our time? The fifth is about honoring our parents, which I think can be extended to all the authorities to which we are rightfully subject. Hierarchy is an exceedingly unfashionable word, but I think a sanctified hierarchy is what this commandment enjoins. The six is about not committing murder. O good, you might say, finally one I am not guilty of, but Jesus says that if we bear anger toward a brother or say 'you fool' to a fellow creature, we are guilty of this law also. I don't think I need go any further; we are all guilty, and we are probably feeling like the Jews who wept at the reading of the law by Ezra. The bad news is that the verdict has come in and we are all guilty before the Judge.
Now imagine a scenario where a judge says, "this defendant is guilty and the offense is punishable by death but instead of this criminal I will take the punishment he deserves." This is exactly what happened in the passion which we have just heard. What does Jesus call out from the cross? The Aramaic phrase Eli, eli, lama sabachthani, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It is the opening of Psalm 22 which describes a righteous person subject to unjust persecution and suffering. Jesus takes upon himself the horrible consequences of sin, the sin of all the world. The alienation and brokenness he knows--our alienation and brokenness--rise up to the climatic cry: my God &c. Our Lord bears our sin and in so doing feels forsaken by God and is alienated from all the people who alternately abandon or scorn and deride him. The Judge is judged in our place, taking upon him the sins of the whole world.
What follows the death of our Lord is the curtain of the temple is torn in two. Now this curtain separated the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies only once a year on the day of atonement, yom kippur, and on the mercy seat God's presence resided so the priest made atonement on behalf of the people. But what does Jesus' death do? It tears that curtain that separated man from God. We have been reconciled to God in a way that the blood of goats and bulls never could accomplish.
Now if all this is true, before we had any inkling of Christian devotion, before we ever went to Church or were baptized, we were already forgiven by God through our Lord's passion and death. As S.Paul says, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Bishop Salmon reminded us on our Lenten quiet day that we have this absurd notion that somehow our repentance or faith initiates a transaction and we receive God's forgiveness and grace as a result of our repentance. We say we are saved apart from works but then we make repentance and faith the one necessary, saving work. We've got the order confused. We first recognize that we are forgiven and loved absolutely by God through Christ's atoning death, and faith and repentance ensue from this realization. If you remember in the parable the father sees his prodigal son afar way off and runs to him and receives him as a son before this son even has a chance to offer himself as a servant.
The palms we hold today are an outward sign of the lordship of our Savior Jesus. On this Palm Sunday it is worth asking ourselves if we merely do lip service to his lordship. If he truly is our Lord he must be our master directing all our doings and we his servants, but that servitude is far more desirable than slavery to sin because Jesus is a King and Lord who dies for his subjects.
In closing, one of the things we might fail to note is that in the traditional English of our prayer book, thou and thee is singular and you and your plural. The words of administration at Holy Communion are in part so moving and powerful because they use this singular form: “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.” For you alone he would have suffered and died to bring you back to his Father who is now your Father by adoption and grace. With all the saints throughout history who have put their trust in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, may we say with them: Christ was bound and delivered for me. He was defamed and slandered for me. Was betrayed and scourged for me. Stripped naked and mockingly crowned for me. Nailed to the hard wood of the cross for me. Given vinegar for his thirst for me. Reviled and scorned for me. Christ cried and gave up the ghost for me. “God hath made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).