The Third Sunday in Lent
The Epistle. Ephesians 5. 1.
Brethren: Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named amongst you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient; but rather giving of thanks; for this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ, and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them: for ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light; (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, and righteousness, and truth) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them: for it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith: Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
I have no wish to sound redundant, but I think it is worth remembering that Lent is that season of fasting during which we deny ourselves of some personal comfort or luxury and focus instead, in the spirit of penitence and humble contrition, on our sins; with the ultimate purpose being, of course, to prepare for Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. But as we assume this attitude of contrition, it is good for us to ask, “what is sin”? Or perhaps more specifically, “what is A sin”?
Now this might seem like an odd question, because as Christians we have already know what constitutes a “sin”; Sin is basically an act of disobedience toward or insult to God. Holy Scripture has given us a seemingly endless list of offences that epitomize this behavior; in Old Testament times it was any deviation from adherence to the Mosaic Law. In the New Testament St. Paul inundates us with one list after another of all those activities that are offensive to God, and are therefore barriers to our hope of entering into His Kingdom.
Further, we know that no matter how penitent, no matter how contrite we may be, still we are incapable by ourselves of overcoming our sins. Because of our sinful nature, and our tendency to continually fall back into sinful activities, we cannot individually overcome our sin. Fortunately, that has been done for us.
But even though the ultimate victory over sin has been won for us by the Sacrifice of Christ, still we are witness to the fact that sin continues to exist in this world. At most levels, sin is very easily identified; ”for this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ, and of God”. However, we live in a time where the lines have been blurred; what was once, anciently, considered to be a sin, is now condoned.
Attitudes and behaviors that would have enraged the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church are now considered to be “socially acceptable”. Changes to conventional morals and ethics are considered to be a natural part of humanity’s “evolution”. No longer is society guided by any notion that there exists an omnipotent being that is not only offended by our behavior, but who will also pass ultimate judgment upon our actions. Now, the ultimate judge is the public opinion poll.
This is where the trouble starts, and it is also what St. Paul is warning us against: “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience“. Let me be very clear about this; There is NO interpretation of Holy Scripture that justifies the Mortal sin of abortion. There is NO interpretation of Holy Scripture that justifies the tolerance of ideologies that result in the slaughter of innocents. There is NO interpretation of Holy Scripture that justifies one ecclesial body taking independent actions that serve only to separate itself from the Body of Christ. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, well, they are speaking “vain words”; words that show the pride, the arrogance, of the speaker. And as the modern definition of the word “vain” will tell you, these words are “ineffectual, unsuccessful, futile; without real significance, value, or importance; baseless, and worthless.
So what is “sin”? We know that Sin is an act of disobedience toward or insult to God. However, in our current society, sin is any action, whether by word or deed, that causes another person to feel bad about themselves. The mores and ethics of society today require us to at least remain silent in the face of obvious sin, and on occasion to be openly supportive of it. But we know that these are vain words.
However, while we can say that we readily recognize just how far society has gone in its reinterpretation of sin, still we must be careful, lest we fall into arrogance and self-righteousness. We must not fall into the trap of getting so caught up in the outrageous sins of others, that we forget that we too have sinned, and continue to do so. Even if we can say that we have not succumbed to the temptation to condone the sins of others, still we must not lose focus on those offences that we have committed.
There exists for us an additional temptation that can be summed up in one simple statement; one which I suspect most of us have thought at one time or another; “Well, sure, I did something bad, but at least it wasn’t as bad as what that fellow did”. Or, put another way, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican…” (Luke 18, V 11).
I am quoting, of course, from a parable told by Our Lord in the 18th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. In this parable, Christ is warning us against the sin of self-righteousness; a sin that tempts us to justify our own offenses by comparing them to the seemingly more heinous crimes committed by someone else. This is an attitude that blinds us and prevents us not only from recognizing our own sins, but also from being truly repentant for them.
So, what is A sin? I return to the definition I gave you earlier; Sin is an act of disobedience toward or insult to God. Likewise, we know of two types of sin; Mortal sin, which is any action that is in violation of Divine Law, and therefore results in eternal condemnation if left unrepentant; and Venial sin, which does not necessarily transgress Divine Law and is therefore considered to be “lesser” in nature. Put almost too simply, the difference is that a Mortal sin is one that separates us from God, while a Venial sin does not necessarily result in such a complete break. Of course, the common link between the two is the necessity for repentance.
This is where most of us find ourselves to be; I am fairly confident that most of us have not committed a Mortal sin for which we have not repented. But what of the Venial sins? What about those “sins of the flesh”, that we succumb to all too often? What about those offences we commit that may not violate Divine Law, but are acts of disobedience toward God, nonetheless?
Do we need some examples?; well, let’s go back to St. Paul and his penchant for making lists; “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named amongst you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient“. Ok, so maybe “fornication” or “uncleanness” don’t pertain to us. What about “covetousness”? What about “foolish talking”? What about “jesting”?
I’d be willing to bet that we all have had moments where we see someone possessing an object or some amount of wealth and wished that we had the same. Likewise, I would tend to believe that at some time or another, we have been given to gossiping; whether it was starting a rumor or perpetuating one. And how many times have we witnessed someone in an unfortunate situation and made a joke about it because, well, they deserved their fate?
But I fear that these examples might serve to distract from our own responsibility; remember, sin is an act of disobedience toward or insult to God. This means ANY act of disobedience toward God. And of course, ANY act of disobedience toward God, is therefore an INSULT to Him. So I ask you all; if you have made a promise to God; if you have committed to behave in a certain way and to act according to His Will, and then fail to do so, wouldn’t that constitute an act of disobedience? And by being so willfully disobedient, would not God be justified in feeling insulted by our actions?
Believe it or not, but this is where our Lenten disciplines come into play. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, most of us (and really, I’m hoping that this is ALL of us), have undertaken to “give up” something or “take on” something for Lent. But even as we endeavor to comply with our Lenten commitments, I remind you of one important fact; these are not the same as a “New Years resolution” for which we may be forgiven if we fail; rather, these are PROMISES TO GOD.
On the surface, this may sound trivial; as a Catholic Christians, we may promise to give up coffee or alcohol or whatever for Lent. But what is not included in this equation is that you did not make this promise to any priest or bishop, or to St. James Church or to the Anglican Catholic Church. YOU MADE THIS PROMISE TO GOD!
So if you break your promise to God, what happens next? If you’re thinking “well, that’s it then, I’m done”, then you’ve missed the message of the Gospel in the first place. Mortal sin, Venial Sin, the common theme is always repentance. We made a promise to God, not just on Ash Wednesday, but even before that at our Baptism, at our Confirmation, and at every Mass that we have ever attended. We promised to be Faithful and part of being Faithful is attempting to live up to the example set before us “let it not be once named amongst you, as becometh saints;” and to confess and repent when we fail to be Faithful.
So, what is A sin? To expand on the definition I have been giving to this point, sin is any thought or action that either violates or is in direct opposition to or in contradiction of the Divine Law of God, or that is in disobedience to or insult toward Him. Which pretty much means, almost everything that is going on in the world today, doesn’t it? So where do we begin? How do we combat the sin that we see all around us? As always, we must begin with ourselves.
And so on this Third Sunday in Lent, I charge you all to recall the promises you made to God; not only those commitments you made for this Lent, but also the promise you made, or that was made for you at your baptism; to “renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them”.
And as you recall these promises, remember also the reason for them; “for ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord“. Our promise to God is not just to deny ourselves something or to avoid committing sin, but further to “walk as children of light; (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, and righteousness, and truth) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord“. Our promise to God is to acknowledge that in this context, there are no “little” sins, there are no “socially acceptable” sins. There is only sin; there is only the broken promise that keeps us from walking as children of light.
Let the world have its “socially acceptable” sin, for we have renounced such things. Let men utter their foolish words about “politically correct attitudes and behavior”, trying to justify their views through opinion polls and editorials and other such nonsense; for we know that these are vain words. Let us instead be a continuing witness to the world that ALL sin is an insult to God; being sure at the same time to let all the world know that there is a sure way out of sin, that God has not broken HIS promise; “But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith: Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light”.