Thursday, February 25, 2016

Llent 3: 'do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?'

May I speak in the name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen

During the course of our mid-week Lenten reflections we have been looking at our baptismal promises. This evening it is the turn of the third of those: 'do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?'; the reply to which is, of course, 'I repent of them'. There are two questions, therefore, we must ask ourselves, if we are to consider this promise even cursorily: what is sin? And what does it mean to repent of it?

Let us begin with sin. Put simply it is anything that is against God's will; and it may be committed, as we know from each time we say the Confession, by an act, a word, or a thought, or by failing to do something that we are obliged to do. Therefore to steal is a sin, as is telling lies, hating someone in our hearts even if we are civil to their faces, and neglecting to instruct children under our care in the faith. The seriousness of the sin depends on the gravity of the offence; therefore it is a greater sin to deliberately murder someone than it is to steal a five-cent coin. But both, of course, are sins. And we are expected to know what God's laws are. He has given them to us in his Sacred Scriptures and the teachings of his Church and he has written them on our hearts. When we are little, it is our parents, teachers, or other responsible adults in our lives to teach them to us; and when we are older we have the responsibility for learning them passes to ourselves.

Sin, it must be noted, does not require some kind of deliberate intent to offend God; it only requires that the offence is something that a reasonable person might know, or be expected to know, is wrong. Therefore the person who steals a sum of money does not to have the conscious thought in their head: 'I do this as much to break the commandments as I do to deprive the rightful owner of this money and gain the benefit of it for myself' in order to sin. The fact that the thief know it wrong to steal is enough. If you conscience tells you that it is wrong then it is a sin.

There are those, it must be said, who use the idea of conscience as some kind of 'get out of gaol free' card. A thief may excuse their behaviour on the grounds that the one they steal from has more than enough and so no one is harmed or that their need for the item is greater than the one who owns it; an adulterer may excuse their infidelity by claiming that the affair makes them happy and as long as they are careful to ensure their spouse does not find out no one is harmed. They claim that they are able to take these action 'in good
conscience'; what is in fact the case is that they have a lax conscience and are attempting to legitimise acts that are objectively wrong by claiming some kind of subjective justification for them.

However, what to act in good conscience actually means is that we must reflect carefully before we act to be sure that what we will do is in accordance with God's will. Some things will be simple; others more complex and need much thought. Indeed some may even require the wise guidance of some trusted spiritual adviser. But the principle remains the same with all; that we base our decisions on God's law rather than trying to redefine God's laws so that they suit ourselves and then claim we have acted in accordance with them.

One might think at this point that I am spending a great deal of the time we have talking about sin and very little about repentance! However, it is not possible to repent unless knows what it is that one has done wrong … and accepts that one has done wrong in doing it. For to repent is to have a true and heartfelt sorrow for the wrongs one has done and the firm resolve and purpose that one will sin no more. How important is repentance? Well, you will no doubt know that the Gospels record that Christ began his ministry with a call to repentance: 'repent and believe in the good news!' He cried. Perhaps we can not truly believe in that good news if we will not repent; certainly, if we do not think we have any need to repent we are rejecting the very words of that good news.

Without repentance, it must also be remembered, it is not possible to receive Holy Communion worthily, as we are told both in Scripture and reminded constantly by Church teaching. The unrepentant sinner effectively cuts themselves off from this vital channel of God's grace. And finally, let us think of the words of the baptismal promise we are considering today and what it teaches us. It asks 'do we repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour:' And as all sins offend against God, the ones that offend against neighbour also offend against God. So all sin, therefore, serves to separate us from God. Those who refuse to repent of their sins deliberately choose to separate themselves from God.

And this, as you all know – or at least I hope you know – has eternal consequences. Repentance is therefore necessary for salvation. And this is why when we are baptised into God's church we promise that we will repent of our sins, for if we will not then we wash away in those waters the stain of original sin only to make a clean place to lay all the new sins that we will commit ourselves, sins that separate us from the God who created us and died on the cross for us, sins that will deny us reaching our final home in heaven. I pray brothers and sisters that you will use this season of Lent as a time to better reflect on how you may repent, and indeed on how you may ask God's help that you may do so; and I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen

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