About 15 years ago, in my early thirties, I had a mad moment. It was a time when if was fashionable to have very very short hair. So, in a fit of stupidity, I shaved off all my hair, just to see what it looked like. I'll let you imagine the reactions of my wife and daughter. But needless to say, they were horrified. So was I! Some heads are just not meant to be shaved! So I immediately found an old baseball cap and plonked it on my head - determined that it would not be removed until my luscious locks had returned!
The following Sunday, I made my way to church, where I was the Worship Leader. I had steeled myself for the various comments that were bound to come my way from the congregation. What I wasn't ready for, however, was the reaction of my Vicar. He saw me, standing at the front of the church in my baseball cap, and he looked horrified! He marched over to me, and snatched the hat off my head, saying 'You can't wear that in here!'. I was really puzzled. I thought the days of having to remove your hat in church had long gone. I forget my Vicar's exact explanation, but the gist of it (as I recall) was that according to the Bible, men should have their heads uncovered when praying, because men were made in the image and glory of God. That's what Paul taught, in his first letter to the Corinthians. (See 1 Cor 11:4 ff). Women, on the other hand, were considered subservient to men, because Eve came from Adam. They were supposed to wear a head-covering in church, to show that subservience.
So, to my Vicar, from his particular theological standpoint, the wearing of a hat in church - by a man - was clearly sinful. To wear any kind of head covering was, for him, a violation of the clear teaching of Scripture. But, I must confess, I struggled for a long time over this. In particular, I wanted to know what sort of God would dictate such a strict rule. And what would be the consequences if I were to disobey this rule? In other words, what did this rule say about the character of God. Was God really that bothered about what I was wearing? Was he really looking at me with a deep frown, and shouting 'sinner' at me? Would a lightening bolt strike me down?
That question has plagued me during the many of the debates that the church has been having over recent years. There are some who seem to believe that if the church ordains women, then it is acting contrary to God's will, and is therefore in a state of sin. Some have similar concerns about whether gay people can legitimately marry, or indeed whether a gay person can be a priest or should be allowed to marry. Underlying all these debates is the same question as the one I asked about the hat...Just what is the picture of God that people are carrying around in their heads? Is God, as they seem to think, some kind of heavenly rule-maker. Does he set rules that make no sense to the modern mind...but which have to be slavishly followed simply because they worked for the society of 2000 years ago?
These kinds of questions arise, I think, because we are fundamentally confused about what sin is, or what it isn't. Some people think that just because something was banned in a collection of Scriptures we call the Bible, then that defines it as sin. But others, like me, are not so sure. For example, St Paul wrote that he never permits a woman to speak in church...from which we could draw the conclusion that our dear Kim is acting sinfully every time she preaches or leads prayers!
There are all sorts of complicated theological arguments that I am tempted to lay before you now. I could speak about the codification of the Canon of Scripture, and the process by which some Scriptures were included in the Bible, and others weren't. I could lecture you on Christian ethics from Iraneus to Kirkegaard and beyond. But, I fear you would all be asleep, very quickly. Instead, let me ask this question: how can I know whether something I do is sinful or not?
Last week, Fr James spoke to us about God's Grace. He reminded us of a loving God who, through Jesus, changed river-water into the equivalent of 5000 bottles of wine. He reminded us of the Father who ran out to meet his prodigal son, even though a Jewish man would never run. James used a whole pile of wonderful Scripture-stories to show us that God's relationship with human beings is fundamentally, completely, utterly underpinned by Love. To quote James, "God doesn’t love us because of anything we could do to please him. He doesn’t love us because we’re good at serving others, or we’re particularly holy, or we go to church a lot. God just loves us - and he loves us from before we were born."
In his first letter, the Apostle John wrote words that are used at the beginning of wedding services today - but which we don't hear often enough in other worship. John said this: "God is Love, and those who live in Love live in God, and God lives in them". (1 John 4:16)
In Lent, as we did in Advent, we will hear again those words of Jesus which, he said, summarised all the Laws of God: "Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself" (cf Luke 10:27).
So, having thought about all these quotations, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that I consider Love to be the yardstick by which we can measure and decide on what is sinful, and what is not. In other words, if any action I take, or any thought that I have, is motivated by something other than love...then it is probably sinful.
Let's try a few examples, to see if this theory works!
Let's imagine that I take my car to the garage, and the mechanic tells me he can knock off 20% of my bill if I pay in cash. I know that this is because if I pay cash, he won't have to pay tax. Is it sinful for me to take him up on his offer? Let's leave aside questions about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. How does the Law of Love help me to solve this conundrum? Well, the principle at stake here is whether I am 'loving my neighbour as I love myself'. If I deprive the Government of tax, then I deprive my neighbour of the things that tax pays for - like healthcare and schools. If I keep that money for myself, then I am clearly not loving my neighbour as much as I love myself. So, yes, paying cash for goods or services in order to evade tax is clearly sinful.
Let's try another...
Is it sinful to pinch a pencil from the stationary cupboard at work? After-all, everyone does it. But the Law of Love teaches us that all stealing is a failure to love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves. If every teacher in every school were to pinch even one pencil each per year, the cost of pencils across the country would rise into thousands of pounds - possibly hundreds of thousands. That money could be spent on employing more teachers, or improving education for everyone. So, if I steal even one pencil, I am putting my own interest above the interest of others, above the interest of the wider society. So, yes, it is sinful.
Let's try another...
Is it sinful for a woman to be a Bishop? Now that's a trickier one! To solve it, I think we need to think about love for neighbour, AND love for God. If a woman - or indeed a man - is motivated to become a Bishop by love - increasing love, sharing love - then how could it be sinful? And what of God's love? Haven't we seen that God's whole being is driven by Love and made of Love? How could such a God speak words of condemnation, seeing the love being offered by anyone who seeks the role of a Bishop?
This then is my thesis: we need to look very carefully at rules which human beings create for themselves. We need to judge every human action, and every human thought by the yardstick of Love, which Jesus himself set.
Is it sinful to break a speed limit? Yes, if by doing so I put my neighbour at risk, or I risk prematurely depriving my family of their father.
Is it sinful to wear a hat in church? Only if you believe that God likes making up rules to torment the bald-headed!
So here's the rub: An authentic church is, I believe, a church which asks the Love question, all the time. The things we do together...our patterns of worship, our sharing of community, our treatment of visitors, our giving of time and resources...are these motivated by Love? If so, then, the whole notion of sin becomes something we can lay aside, as we move together into God, into love, motivated by Love, exploring Love, sharing Love. That's the kind of truly authentic church that I believe we are growing to be.
Sermons in this series:
1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.
2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met. Are we the same?
3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin? Breaking Rules? Who decides what is Sin anyway?
4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?
6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days? How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!
7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?
8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?
9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?
10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?