“Day after day the priest offers the same sacrifices which can never take away sins.” So writes the author of Hebrews in today’s epistle.
The Jewish people in the time of Jesus knew they were sinners; if they were good Jews they offered sacrifices in the temple to have their sins forgiven. Yet, as the writer to the Hebrews says – how could the sacrifice of bulls and goats take away sin? It needed something much better than that. It needed the sacrifice of the Son of God. That is what we have.
Sin, and the forgiveness of sin was at the heart of Jewish religion. It is at the heart of Christian religion too. Jesus speaks often of sin and the need for forgiveness. The Prodigal Son, the Woman taken in adultery, the Woman who washed Jesus’ feet are all stories that encourage us to confess that we are sinners and to know the wonderful joy of forgiveness.
St Paul also keeps reminding his new Christians how they were once lost to sin, to drunkenness, carousing, fighting and the worship of idols. Some of them, like the Corinthians seem to have brought a lot of their sinful ways into their new religion. St Paul knew that he was also trapped by sin. At first sight this was surprising; he had been a devout Jew. He kept the Law strictly. He didn’t break the Ten Commandments in any obvious way. But he was arrogant, proud, self-righteous. He thought his keeping of the Law would put him right with God. He was wrong. Only by casting himself on the mercy of God could he find forgiveness and freedom to live as a joyful Christian. Do we have that same freedom?
Are we sinners? Yes, I am afraid we are. I certainly am. St John says “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Are we big sinners? In the eyes of the world we are probably not. We don’t do the things that hit the headlines. But in God’s eyes it is probably different. Jesus makes it clear over and over again that the Pharisees who kept the law so well were sinners. They were self-righteous, mean spirited, selfish, lacking in compassion. They cared for the Law. They didn’t care for people. Their sins were well hidden from people around them, and from themselves. Those are the kinds of sins we need to look for within ourselves. They are not easy to spot. They are good at hiding themselves. As we approach Advent and Christmas we need to be looking for those destructive sins that keep us away from God.
Where does sin start? I believe it starts with selfishness. Babies are born utterly selfish. Slowly, if they are well brought up, they grow to be less selfish. None of us ever completely loses that instinct to care first for ourselves. St Francis de Sales said “Selfishness in us dies half an hour after we do.” So we are selfish. We need to look for ways to overcome that selfishness.
Zimbabwe, where I come from, is a poor country. That is, the majority of the people are very poor. But there are some terribly rich people too. They live in massive houses, houses like palaces. They drive expensive cars. They show off their wealth in every way they can. I can’t ask them to help us support orphan kids. I can’t get near them. They have dogs, and security systems and armed guards to keep people like me away. The way they make their wealth helps no one. It just makes the rest of the people poorer. They don’t care about the poor. They don’t give to the poor. They call themselves Christians but they do not seem to notice that Jesus said ”Blessed are the poor.” He never said “Blessed are the rich.” Of course some rich people do give money away, but is it enough? In one story Jesus praised an old woman who gave two pence to the temple because it was all she had, and criticized the others who gave what they could easily spare. He told one rich man to give away everything. He did have rich friends – Joanna the wife of Chuza who provided food and lodging for him and his disciples, or Joseph of Arimathea who cared for his body. Jesus doesn’t dislike the rich. He loves them as his own, but he does want them to learn to love, to learn to be generous, to learn how much good they can do in the world with the money they have and to discover how much they can enjoy helping the people whom God loves.
We are all rich. The pocket money I get even as a monk is more than most people in Zimbabwe have to live on. And I have lovely friends who spoil me rotten. But actually my greatest wealth is in the people I meet in Zimbabwe, the orphan kids, the wonderful old ladies in church, the poor people who struggle to help each other survive. I know some other wonderful people in England who are usually not well off, but give what they can to help my kids make a good start in life. Real wealth is not about how much we have in the bank, or how big our house is. It is what we do with that money. Real wealth comes from giving, not from keeping. Keeping is meanness. Giving is fun. Giving opens our hearts to others. Giving welcomes other people into our lives. Giving to our kids in Zimbabwe completely transforms their lives into the lives that God wants them to have. It also changes us.
So, to return to today’s epistle: we do have a priest who can gain forgiveness of our sins, and that priest is Christ. We also have the sacrament of confession by which we can show that we really mean it when we say we are sorry. That is a most certain route to knowing the forgiveness of sin.
Hebrews goes on to speak of “entering the Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” and here we are in this Holy Place about to go up to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus. We are so fortunate. Are we ready for this great privilege? Have we searched our hearts for the selfishness, the lack of compassion that may prevent Christ entering our hearts? Will we be ready for it by Christmas at least, when we shall have had time to think carefully about ourselves and see where the different kinds of selfish sins hang out? And what can we do to change?
The writer of Hebrews tells us at the end: “let us spur one another on to love and good deeds.” What will be the good deeds that show we have really listened to the words of Christ? May they start with care for the lovely young people we support in Zimbabwe?