St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
+Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Passion Sunday, March 29, 2020
“If the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
AN ILLUSTRATION of a moral guidance system was once taught to us in televised cartoons: the American classroom of culture. We see our hero mulling over a choice he or she has to make, and two small figures stand upon each shoulder, whispering into his or her ears. On the right is a little winged figure with a halo and harp, telling the person to do right. At the left stands a clever little demon with pitchfork, pointy tail and horns, egging our hero on to do what’s a lot more fun. Whichever way it goes, the two will be along for the ride, one cheering, the other berating the protagonist for making the wrong choice. More often than not, like Flip Wilson, he’ll claim, “The devil made me do it!”
Moral choices are always before us, and we’re often unaware of them. We’ve been given two feet so that we will always be choosing between them, to take that direction or this. At each step we make choices. We may see God as a cosmic cop, watching each mislaid footprint to count them all up and send us a bill. If you’ve ever gotten a traffic ticket in the mail, spied by a robot camera controlled somewhere in Arizona, it’s something akin to our concept of a god who counts our errors and issues demerits for each. We can only try to earn enough brownie points through good deeds to pay the ticket and stay out of jail, which means of course, hell.
Is this really how things are? Some of us have overworked psychological guilt-getters that murmur “you failed again!” at times when we’re actually okay. We may have been taught at a young age what disappointments we are, and can never live up to some arbitrary high hope for us. I’ve called that mindset “the self-trashing machine:” an imaginary skip loader pouring garbage over your head. No matter what’s happening in reality, we manage to condemn ourselves.
A sociopath is a soul that effectively lacks conscience. Descriptions of sociopaths are alarming but ring familiar to us when we spot this 4% of the population. A sociopath has charming and charismatic attractions and spontaneity. Feeling no guilt or remorse, they lie outrageously and dominate us in order to win at all costs. Sociopaths can’t love, though they may recite poetry and tell great stories. Because everything they do is justified, they can never, ever say they’re sorry. Some people envy sociopaths, because they rise to the top in industry, political office, or crime sprees, leaving a wake of broken lives behind. But look at the perpetrator: this one will never know the warmth of true human feeling. And we are well advised to stay clear. They have no conscience.
What is a conscience? If it’s not two little spirits, one good one bad, what is it? The conscience is proof of our spiritual nature. Our bodies don’t care, and our human minds and hearts can be conditioned to believe good or evil of ourselves. There is a higher awareness that speaks truth from outside ourselves, from beyond each moment’s pleasure or shame. It’s a still small voice that leads us, but only if we’re listening and hearing with great care. Our conscience is an organ of spiritual hearing, a gift from God. Truly, when we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, hearing Him is the most valuable spiritual sense we can have. With clear consciences, we hear better. When we consistently choose against our conscience, it’s like trying to hear after a rock concert: we’re deafened by decibels. Sins are ear wax clogging the tiny ear canal. So deafened, our conscience may read like a sundial in the moonlight: telling us a time, but informed by a false light source.
While our use of internal guidance is vital and the ultimate way to know God’s will, we often can be fooled by circumstances. That’s when external guidance is valuable—training wheels in right and wrong, like the traffic laws, speed limits, stop signs and crosswalks. The Jewish Law was such a code for moral living, but it swelled and became unwieldy, mistaken for God’s will when it became mere human tyranny. St. Paul noted that some people do right without the Mosaic Law, and thus they are keepers of God’s will without legal guidance.
We recite and keep the Ten Commandments, not because of Moses, but because they set a universal guidance system for our moral choices. They inform our minds in most instances so we don’t have to consult the inner voice that may, at times, be a poor guide. Our hearts can be misled. We are sinners, after all, which means simply that we are human, born on this fallen planet, and broken before we ever were unpacked. St. Paul wrote: “The purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.” 1 Tim 1:6
Up from our original fallen state, we learn right from wrong, and listen to the Spirit’s leading, gaining the use of our consciences and feeling God’s pleasure with our choices. Paul wrote of both states of being that, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.” Titus 1:12-13 When fallen and unrepentant, our consciences are clogged, our minds directed toward evil, and our hearts unable to inform us of doing anything else. Sociopathy is not an inborn state, but a conditioned response to consistently evil choices.
Jesus was in Jerusalem at this time of year, taking His controversial stand for the true ways of God against the religious power-brokers of His day. He was shown a woman just caught in adultery and accused before Him, demanding Him to render judgment. The Law stipulated that such a crime was punished by stoning to death. They expected Him to disobey this Law so they’d have something to accuse Him of. Jesus began drawing on the floor. They pressed Him for His verdict. When He stood again, He looked at their faces and said, “Let the one among you without any sin throw the first stone at her.” It was the custom that the eldest man present throw the first stone. Jesus stooped down and began writing again. What did He write? Was it the name the eldest executioner dreaded to see, a person he’d injured? We’ll never know. But conscience struck each man, from eldest to youngest, and stones fell from weakened fists as each man turned and departed, leaving the woman shaking in fear. Finally, Jesus alone with her, said: “‘Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’” John 8:10-11
Was Jesus being soft on sin? We confuse sin with sinners. He condemned the sin because the sin condemned the woman. She could leave that sin on the floor of the Temple, having her life saved by God’s mercy, and walk away free. Go and sin no more. I do not condemn you. May we all hear those words from our God, and may we heed them.
External guidance is important. Our consciences, terribly stunted and deafened by the world’s twisted school of bad and worse, need the confirmation of better and best. The Church is supposed to teach us these things: it’s our school of the moral compass, a chart by wise and ancient mariners who have drawn good maps for us to follow.
The moral guidance of some churches in these latter days has come into conflict with the guidelines taught in the past, clearly shown in Scripture, giving the poor excuse that people didn’t used to live as we do, and didn’t know what we know today. Today’s gender confusion disobeys God, and even nature, and justifies it by being “open minded and tolerant.” St. Paul tells us: “in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.” “Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers… unthankful, unholy… without self-control… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power… always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth… evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” “They will not endure sound doctrine… because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” 1 Tim 4:1-2, 2 Tim 3:1-15, 4:3-4
We do live in biblical times. But how is your conscience? Do you, like many of us, have the vague sense that you’ve blown it? Are you, like the adulteress, standing head down, awaiting execution? Is it even possible that your God might have compassion, and will commute your death sentence? Truth is: God is only interested in your healing and your restoration. He knows your faults, better than you do. And He knows your struggles. He would send His Son to a cross for you. He did in fact send Him, to gain your freedom and clear the way for your conscience to hear Him once again, before you make another choice.
The Jews once needed to kill an animal, pour its blood one place, burn its flesh in another, to satisfy God’s judgment of their sins. It was all they understood: a viable, physical, substitutionary sacrifice. But in a more perfect Tabernacle, one in heaven, God’s Son set the sacrifice of a perfect human life before His Father, and His own blood shed on a wooden cross, in the holy place, thereby purchasing at terrible cost our redemption. That’s all done, and we are the fortunate ones for whom He came and walked that painful road.
“The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, [does indeed] purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Heb 9:14 God Himself has crossed that gap between His perfect heaven and our fallen earth and has rescued us for Himself. It’s done. He did it. Take hold of that this day, and take heart.