Did anybody see Casualty last night? I was struck with one of the story lines in particular. A middle aged white man and a young black man have a chance encounter in a pub. There is obviously some history between them. By a series of slightly contrived circumstances they both end up in the Emergency Department, with lots of opportunities for them to see each other, exchange meaningful glances and, in the end, confrontation. It turns out that three years ago that the young man had been responsible for the death of the older man's wife and child in a collision between their cars, but he had denied it in court, had got his girlfriend to lie about what had happened and had been found not guilty. The climax of the story was the young man being unable to live with the deceit and confessing this to the older man. There were two bits of this story that I found especially interesting. The first was the effect that carrying the guilty secret had had on the young man. He'd split up with his girlfriend. He had been lying to his mother – he hadn't been at University, and he didn't have a job lined up in Boston, he was living a lie. The second was the reaction of the man whose family had been killed. He felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted of from him, and he was freed to get on with his life.
Sin, and especially sin that has not been dealt with has very deep consequences for our lives. Jesus, speaking to his disciples in Mark's account of his life, knew that. James, writing to the early Christians, knew that. They both were speaking to people like us.
What can we learn about the serious consequences of sin from Jesus and James.
James is very clear. “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death” How seriously must James take sin if he describes death as its ultimate consequence.
Jesus uses big, graphic images to explore this.
He talks about the fate of those who lead others to sin. About how it would be better for them to drown, pulled down to the deeps by a stone round their necks. How seriously must Jesus take sin if he describes that as a preferable experience than the consequences of causing someone else to sin.
He talks about Gehenna, a place outside Jerusalem, as a picture of hell. Gehenna, a place of human sacrifice in ancient times, and by Jesus' time a rubbish dump for the city in which fires burned day and night as the refuse was burnt. How seriously must Jesus take sin if he says that it is better to chop of a hand to avoid it than to end up in an eternal waste land with two hands.
Sin is a reality and it has real consequences. As we hear Jesus speaking, it seems to me that there is a real danger that we miss this. We quite rightly recognise that Jesus is using extravagant language to get his message across. If every man who ever looked at a women lustfully put his eye out then none of us would make it past fifteen able to see. And so we are tempted to dismiss the whole passage. The pictures are too overblown, Jesus got carried away, we don't need to take any of it seriously.
No. The pictures are big and colourful and dramatic, but that is because sin is even more serious than normal language can communicate. We fail to understand this at our peril.
So, sin is serious and can damage our lives now and forever. What can we do about it?
Firstly we need to take some personal responsibility to take every opportunity to avoid it. We can take ourselves out of situations that might lead us to sin. Adrian Plass tells the story of a woman who realised that the nodding acquaintance with a man who caught the same train to work as her had progressed into a friendship and was now starting to develop into a tender affection. She did not want to succumb to the temptation to unfaithfulness to her husband by allowing the relationship to develop further. So, she started catching a later train, even though that was less convenient for her. As Jesus put it, “she plucked out her eye”.
Secondly, we need to help each other. Jesus says that we are not to cause each other to stumble. This is not just about not actively tempting another person to sin, but also about changing our own behaviour so that they are not provided with the opportunity to sin. For instance I might see that a friend of mine is becoming dependent on alcohol. It is not enough for me to decide not to invite him to go down to the pub every evening. When he comes round to watch the football I also need to make sure that I don't have any beer in the house.
James says that we are also to help each other avoid sin by confessing to each other and by bringing back those who are wandering. Those in themselves are whole other sermons. But, again, both remind us of the seriousness of sin and of our responsibility to each other to help each other to take hold of the freedom from sin that is ours in Jesus.
I know that this has been a bit heavy. Sin is serious. But it is not all powerful. Considering the weight of sin is important, not because we should feel pressed down by it but because only when we get a handle on its weight that we get a full picture of the power of what Jesus has done for us. Sin, with all its weight, seriousness, and consequences has been dealt with for us, by Jesus, in his death and resurrection. Because of Jesus, we can be forgiven and freed from the darkness of sin. Because of Jesus' wounds we can enter life for ever with both our eyes and all our limbs. In a moment we will come to the table to share in the bread and wine that is a reminder to us of that glorious truth. It may be that there is a sin that you feel pressing you down. It may be a one off thing that happened a long time ago. It may be something that you struggle with day by day. As you come up to communion today I encourage you to bring it with you and leave it here, at the rail, as you receive the signs of Jesus' victory over that sin.