This Sunday as part of our Way of Life series we take the second of the clauses in the baptismal commission: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
There are a number of concepts here to be unpacked – sin, repentance, evil. And I think a particular risk for us, because on the whole we like talking about concepts, is that we don’t get to the application. we unpack theoretically, we don’t unpack practically. So what, practically, does it mean to resist evil, to recognise our sinfulness, to repent and return to the Lord? What does this look like in your life today or this week? What does it look like for us collectively as the community of the followers of Jesus Christ in this place?
This text was offered as a reflection in the service in Dry Drayton on 8 July 2018 as part of the Way of Life series based on the Ely Way of Life. It is posted here just as it was first written, including spelling and grammatical mistakes and phrases used for a ‘spoken’ style.
For those who were not here and to remind those who were, last Sunday we began a series that will take us through July and August. We will have a short break in a couple of weeks for something called Rural Mission Sunday and then a fifth Sunday service. But for most of these next two months we will be following a series based on material produced by the diocese called the Ely Way of Life. This has been produced in order to, in their words: ‘raise the spiritual temperature’ in this area. You will find that there are things to consider and questions to explore that are not just for Sundays. You are encouraged to take them into the rest of the week in personal pondering and also in pairs or groups or 1-1 spiritual direction. None of these are yet set up because we wanted to know what you want to do and therefore you will need to take some initiative here. However, there is a flier to go with each week to help with further thinking and practice action and you can go back and read through what is presented from the front again on my blog (details in the weekly email news).
The ‘Going Further’ flier for this week can be downloaded here. 3, Holiness
The series is based on the idea of shaping or re-shaping a way or a rule of life as a follower of Jesus Christ, as a member of the community of the followers of Jesus Christ. Shaping, because you might never have thought about it in this way before, re-shaping because circumstances and stages of life change, or perhaps because we have become spiritually lazy (it happens to us all…). I find it quite exciting that at any stage we can deliberately shape a pattern of life for ourselves, rather than just let the circumstances of life shape us.
Most obviously an intentional rule or way of life is something that we might connect with monks or nuns – the rule of St Benedict for example. A set of principles put into practice via some things that you do largely based on some kind of rhythm – daily, weekly, monthly and so on. We are looking at such a set of principles for a shared life week by week through this series. A set of principles known as ‘The Commission’. It is often part of the baptism and confirmation services. We don’t often talk about it, but I think that perhaps we should.
Last Sunday we introduced the series with a reflection on what it is to be one body with one Lord, a shared life, summarised here –
• The church is primarily a community to which followers of Jesus Christ belong, not a building to visit or a weekly event to attend.
• The Christian life is primarily a shared life not a private commitment.
• Adopting an intentional way of life such as that based on the clauses of the commission connects us to the wider Christian community and enables our spiritual growth.
Each Sunday in the next few weeks we will take one clause from the commission, though not necessarily in the order here.
So this Sunday we take the second of those clauses:
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
There are a number of concepts here to be unpacked – sin, repentance, evil. I think a particular risk for us in DD, because on the whole we like talking about concepts, is that we don’t get to the application. we unpack theoretically, we don’t unpack practically. So what, practically, does it mean to resist evil, to recognise our sinfulness, to repent and return to the Lord? What does this look like in your life today or this week? What does it look like for us collectively as the community of the followers of Jesus Christ in this place?
We haven’t got time to answer all of these questions right now but I hope and pray that this will get you thinking. It has got me thinking… Sin, repentance and evil. But before I get to those I want to introduce something else first – holiness.
The call to conversion of life
When I work with couples bringing a child to baptism, I ask them about their hopes and dreams for their child. I am struck by how often the first things that is said is ‘we want them to be happy’. Of course, happiness is a good thing, a blessing, but the primary call of God is to holiness. The primary call of God to us as a church is not to keep everyone happy but to help each other become holy.
The word holy is often used negatively – we complain that someone is a bit too holy for us, generally meaning not very good company, a bit standoffish or judgemental perhaps; or we say that they are a bit ‘holier than thou’. So the call to holiness may not be something we particularly aspire to.
But think about this. The call to holiness is expressed in Jesus’ teaching as a call to a conversion of life; a call away from the life that our society or our family or our circumstances might define for us, and to the life of God’s kingdom. This is for every would be disciple.
And the call to conversation of life is not only for individuals but for institutions too, not least the church. What God desires is the conversion of all life, the life of the whole world, and the church is called to model that, the life of the Kingdom of God.
So, the call to holiness is a call to conversion of life. Conversion to the life of the kingdom of God. And from sin or sinfulness.
Now, sin like holy, is another word that has changed its meaning and is misunderstood. For instance a luscious looking cake might described by advertisers as sinfully chocolatey, and that is how it is made to seem desirable to us.
Even within the church the concept of sin has become reductionist, reduced to a list of things we can articulate that we do or don’t do. We refer to ‘my sins’. A phrase that can unhelpfully incapacitate people with personal guilt.
But sin, or perhaps ‘sinfulness’, is a much broader thing. It is based in the inherent brokenness of the world. Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of the world shot through with the glory of God. It is. But it is also shot through with the brokenness of sin. Sinfulness is a flaw that runs through our systems, our institutions, sometimes more visible, sometimes less, and always destructive. And where it mounts up without check, that way evil lies.
One way of looking at evil is as the end result of the accumulation of systemic sinfulness and particular sins until some horrible alchemy takes place and we end up with something evil.
Whilst I was in Kigali with 5 others from Ely diocese, we visited the national genocide memorial which is built on the site of a mass grave for 250,000 men, women and children. The memorial documented the gradual build up of individual actions, sins against others – in government policies, newspaper articles, decisions by the UN, the unfettered impulse to build yourself up by putting others down, all built on and around the systemic flaws of a colonial tribal culture, resulting in a snowballing of individual acts of violence that became endemic for 100 days of the evil of genocide. Sobering to read how something like that happened. And inspiring to see how the country came to its senses and has experienced a conversion of life.
Repentance and confession
Repentance is the way in which we intentionally and often notice and name our sinfulness and our sins, recognising that some things are more easily changed than others and turn to the way of the kingdom of God. Not primarily as a product of guilt or shame but of honesty and realism in the face of a God who delights in us.
Here are three practical ways of doing this –
In the Anglican church on most if not all Sundays we have the opportunity to say a confession together as part of our shared commitment to this way of life. The danger is that we say in by rote So, work out how to use that prayer of confession to stimulate your own thoughts before God about what you need to turn away from or change. Make it a weekly discipline. And remember that confession in church is always followed by a declaration of the forgiveness offered to all who make an act of repentance.
You may need to extend that prayer of confession and repentance in your own conversation with the God who loves you and calls you. I have found it helpful from time to time, to imagine myself bowed and kneeling at the foot of the cross. In prayerful imagination putting down there whatever it is I need to repent of and leave behind.
Although it is far less prominent in the Anglican church than the catholic church, any priest is also prepared to hear individual confession. Sometimes it is helpful to articulate with someone else a sense of guilt or shame, and to pray with a priest. But here it is called reconciliation to focus on its purpose of reconciliation to God and to others.
What about practical ways to resist evil? For most of us it will feel as if there is little we can do in the face of systemic sinfulness or evil. But if we don’t do the little that is within our power then it does something to us inside, something damaging to our integrity as the body of Jesus Christ. So, for example, are there some actions you can take in response to the travesty that is the plastic waste in our landfill and our oceans? – shop where you can use paper bags, go back to a doorstep milk delivery in glass bottles, maybe you are in a position to influence a workplace and its use of disposable plastic.
Closing and summarising
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
• We are called to holiness, that is to a complete conversion of life, to the life of the kingdom of God. This is as individuals and as a church.
• Repentance and confession give us practices that enable this call away from sin and sinfulness.
• Another part of this call is to stand against the evils of our day with integrity by taking the actions within our power.