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Thursday, 11 August 2016

Against whom should we compare ourselves?

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Against whom should we compare ourselves? Our answer makes all the difference in the world. The Pharisee in Jesus’s parable (Luke 18. 9 - 14) compared himself against other people: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

This is generally what we do when we make comparisons; we compare ourselves with others and so compare ourselves with those we think are worse than or similar to ourselves. We’ve all heard others and, maybe, ourselves saying ‘I’m alright, Jack!’ or ‘I’m as good as the next person, if not better!’ On the basis of these comparisons we think we are ok; at least no better or worse than others, at best, better than many others around us. On the basis of these comparisons we are comfortable with who we are and see no need to change.

The Pharisee in this story lived in a simplistic world of legalism where he could look down on those like the publican because he kept certain rules and fulfilled certain practices. Therefore he could say, I am not like other people because I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income. For him, there was no wrestling with difficulty and no struggling with conscience but the world he inhabited was, ultimately, a harsh world without understanding, without compassion, without forgiveness. Our common response as human beings to our own fallibility and failure is that, instead of acknowledging our own shortcoming, we attempt to distract attention away from our selves by identifying a scapegoat and angrily pointing out that person’s many failings. We are often very successful in covering up our own shortcomings when we adopt this tactic but, of course, the reality is that we are being hypocritical.

The true comparison that we make should not be with others, but with God. Jesus challenged us to ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ On the basis of that comparison, we all fall short. As St Paul writes, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Jesus, through his life and death, showed us the depth of love of which human beings are really capable and, on the basis of that comparison, we come up well short and are in real need of change. In the light of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, we see our inherent selfishness and recognise our need for change. Those are the kind of comparisons that the publican in the parable was making when he stood far off, not even looking up to heaven, beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

In the light of the way that Jesus lived his life, we see our lack of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, remain in darkness, and there is no truth in us. But when we live in the light of Christ, seeing ourselves as we really are, then we become honest with ourselves and with God. By coming into that honesty we confess our sins and are purified; as we say in this service, we make our humble confession to Almighty God truly and earnestly repenting of our sins.

That honesty undermines the simplistic legalism of the Pharisee’s world by revealing the hypocrisy at its heart. The reality is that each one of us has broken the Law and each one of us is a sinner. If that is so, on what basis can one sinner presume to judge or condemn another? To do so is a gross act of hypocrisy which multiplies one sin upon another. The publican, by contrast, lives in a world of without condemnation because he lives in a world where second chances and fresh starts are available.

On Ash Wednesday the sign of the cross is marked in ash on our foreheads and these words are said: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." In that service, we acknowledge both our sinfulness and our mortality recognising the link between the two – that the wages of sin are death. The ash mark on our forehead is a public acknowledgement of our sinfulness but, because it is formed as a cross, it is also a sign of the forgiveness we have received. We are saying that we no longer live in the legalistic, unforgiving world of the Pharisaical Law where we compare ourselves with others in order that we come out best; instead, like the publican, we are those who compare themselves against God only to then realise that we have been accepted and welcomed into the world of love by Jesus himself.

Against whom should we compare ourselves? Our answer makes all the difference in the world. Jesus said one of the two men went down to his house justified; and it certainly wasn’t the Pharisee!


Kindred Spirit - Ask Me No Questions.

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