St Peter’s Derby, 18 April 2014 (Good Friday), ecumenical service
Thank you for asking me here today; it’s a great pleasure to be here and to see so many different Christian traditions represented in this gathering for Good Friday. Like many of you, probably, I represent several traditions myself; among other things, I have some robustly Calvinist ancestors. I mention this partly to save you wondering further about my accent – it’s Edinburgh – and partly because I propose to preach about Sin.
Sin is not interesting.
I may already have lost you. I am clearly not talking sense. Obviously sin is interesting. That is why we have classified it and codified it and compiled encyclopaedias of it. The churches’ investigations of sin have been heroic. And this is to say nothing of the press, an industry built on sin, or literature, much the same but with better-chosen words; and as for film and television, well, words fail me, which of course is the point of the visual arts. Of course sin is interesting. We are all very interested in sin. Next time the advertisements come on the telly, see how many of the seven deadly sins you can spot before the programme starts again. If you get the whole seven I don’t know if you should win a prize or say three Hail Marys.
And, to digress slightly, although sin is not interesting, there’s something interesting about our interest in it: we’re not actually good at spotting it. We’re fine on the seven deadly sins. We’re fine when it’s individual. We’re not good at spotting it – and this is important – when it’s big and systematic, and we’re complicit in it and signed up to it. Even when we do spot it, we’re not good at doing anything about it. Yes, we say, it’s not good, but it’s just the way the world works, isn’t it? Well, yes it is. That’s the point. It’s the way the world works, it’s the system, but it’s a bad system, designed to produced more badness. That’s something to take away and think about, perhaps, this Eastertide. We’re good at doing things for the forty days of Lent when we can think about individual sinfulness. Let’s do something for the fifty days of Easter, something about a better world. Something about the kingdom of God.
But back to sin. We are all very interested in sin. Meaning, one, that we like finding out about sin, always provided that the actual commission of the sin is outsourced to other people. We like the same things when we do them ourselves but we don’t like them because they’re sins. But they are. And the second meaning, when I say ‘we are all very interested in sin’ is that we are involved. We are complicit in it. We have an interest in it, the sort of interest you have to declare, the meaning of interest that means this is something to do with us, this is something we are in some way committed to. If it does well we will profit, and if it does badly we will lose. We are interested in sin. We like finding out about it. It’s something we’re involved in. It’s something we’re capable of. It’s human. It is not for nothing that the newspapers talk about human interest stories.
But although we are interested in sin, sin is not interesting. Sin is not interesting to God. Again, this may not seem to make any sense, so I would like to back it up. It is not because we are sinful that God is interested in us. It doesn’t add anything to our attractions. If we become more sinful, God will not become more interested in us. Our sinfulness is not a guarantee that God will pay us some attention. God doesn’t collect sins. God is not a cosmic traffic warden trying to issue so many tickets every half hour. There isn’t a quota. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. Sin is not interesting to God. It gets into the story, certainly, but it’s not where the story starts.
Let’s go to one of the great starting-points for the story. We are here today at the Cross. Let’s do as so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ have done before us, and look across from this tree, the Cross, to the tree in the garden of Eden in the story of Adam and Eve. There’s a story about the human propensity to get things wrong. There are two human beings and a serpent and a tree, and it all goes wrong, and they get thrown out of the garden. I think you will be familiar with the basic outline of the plot.
But right at the beginning of the story God asks a question, and it’s an important question. It isn’t the question about ‘what have you done?’ It isn’t the one about ‘how did you know you had no clothes on?’ (It sounds like the end of a particularly terrible stag night.) It isn’t the question about ‘whose idea was this in the first place?’ It’s the first question God asks, before any of this has come to light, when God is walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. God says ‘Where are you?’
Now you can read the story so that that’s a terrifying question. You can decide that God already knows how everything has gone wrong, and asks this question almost like a threat. Like a parent who’s opened the door of a teenager’s bedroom, knowing that the teenager is in there somewhere, under the piles of unwashed clothes and unwashed dishes and undone homework. ‘Where are you?’
But you can also read it so that it’s a genuine question: God is wondering where they are. God has made Adam and Eve and the garden, and now God is taking the air – you have to remember, this is a story, but a story that’s trying to say something about what God is like – taking the air in this very pleasant garden and wondering how his creatures are getting on. Why are they not around? What are they up to? ‘Where are you?’ says God. To read it that way you have to envisage the possibility that God might quite like to see us. Not because we’re sinful. Because we’re us. Sin gets into that story, because it gets in the way – sin is the reason that at that point in the story Adam and Eve are not having a friendly chat with God but hiding behind a tree. But sin isn’t where it starts. It starts with God looking for us.
And it carries on that way. That’s why I read it that way. God would like to see us. After all, God made us. But it keeps going wrong. The Hebrew scriptures tell us this story, a story of a shaky relationship. And God hangs in there. So do we, to be fair, or at least some of us, and those sometimes not the ones you’d expect. But God hangs in there. He storms out, he washes his hands of us. Days pass. Months pass. The phone rings and it’s God again.
That is the sort of story ours has been. Today on Good Friday we are at the turning-point. And it is not a happy ending. The story that begins with God asking Adam and Eve ‘Where are you?’ is ending with another question. Jesus is asking God, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Where are you?
But it is not the ending. It is the turning-point. God has been so determined to find us that he has come to look for us himself; he has met us in himself, in Jesus; God has so found us that he has lost himself. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. That is the Cross. Death, loss, emptiness. Utterly empty. Utterly a source. Utterly a beginning.
We begin from here. We begin from the Cross. With Jesus we have died; with Jesus we are the resurrection. God has found us. We have a new life and a new question – the hymn asks it for us. Not ‘where are you?’ but ‘who am I’? Who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die? We have a new song: a song of love unknown, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. We have a new calling. Get out there this Eastertide, and know yourself loved, and the world loved, and be lovely.