Sunday, July 14, we will begin a seven-week sermon series entitled: “Stick and Stones: The Things We Say.” So often we all have the best of intentions. We want to respond to people with love and compassion. That is why we throw phrases around like “Love the sinner hate the sin, you will be in my thoughts and prayers, God won’t give you more than you can handle, God helps those who help themselves, and everything happens for a reason.”
In her book, “Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lives I’ve Loved,” Kate Bowler debunks these expressions we say. After being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at 35, Kate found these phrases to be meaningless and not helpful, so she wanted other people to understand what might be a more faithful response.
These ingrained phrases become our go-to’s when we don’t know what to say, but are they really helpful? And our question for today is more importantly, are they really biblical?
What is interesting about our phrase from today, “Love the Sinner, hate the sin” is that it is not from the Bible. Jesus never said it. It was actually a phrase from St. Augustine. In his letter to a group of nuns he said: “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.”[i] The modern rendering of the phrase comes from Mahatma Gandhi’s 1929 autobiography. He writes: [the phrase] “hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”[ii] Gandhi argues that using this phrase is an excuse to judge another person because it cannot be effectively practiced.[iii]
It is never helpful for us to call someone else a sinner because aren’t we all sinners? Romans 3:23 tells us that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are all sinners in need of God’s redeeming grace.
We are called to take direction from Jesus Christ in our lectionary Scripture for this Sunday from Luke 10. Here we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer was interested in becoming a disciple of Christ, but he wanted to know the cost. Jesus told him to recite what he knew about following Christ from the Scriptures. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”[iv]
Christ knew that this commandment needed embodiment which is why he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Hear more about this parable on Sunday).
So often our response is judgement and not mercy when we see someone different than us. We, like the Apostle Paul and even John Wesley, may be fearful of how the actions of someone else can affect us.
The person in the Bible in the New Testament who warned us the most about fleeing from sin was the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul makes it clear not to associate with sinners. Even our own John Wesley had a system to deal with active sinners. He would take their ticket away needed for them to attend worship and send them to what was called a “penitential band” until their behavior improved.
Do we hear these same sentiments from Jesus? No, because Jesus wasn’t afraid of sinners, in fact, he recruited them for ministry.
When Jesus called Peter to follow him, his response was: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Jesus recruited Zacchaeus the sinful tax collector, by making an unexpected meeting with him. Jesus saved the life of a woman caught in the act of adultery. He started a conversation with a Samaritan woman who was not living her best life. Jesus even invited women to follow him, which at that time was unheard of.
Jesus knew we were all sinners and looked at us all the same. It is only us who look at each other different based out of fear.
The phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” has been used to keep a degree of separation between ourselves and our neighbors. Recently, I have heard this phrase used when referring to our brothers and sisters in Christ in the LGBTQI + community.
When we refer to anyone with this language, we are saying that their relationship with God is contingent upon them fitting in a box we have created for them, instead of their faith in Jesus Christ.
We should be more focused on loving people the way Christ did than judging them. Jesus tells us that our neighbors are everyone that we encounter and that we are called to help them no matter what, no matter who they are or what they have done or are doing.
Recently, I have heard this call of Jesus in our time with the crisis going on at the border. Where immigrant children have been separated from their parents, and are not being treated as humans, but as property. That is not the way we treat our neighbors. That is not the way we treat children of God.
Discipleship is about building relationships with all of God’s people to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We see the Apostle Paul understood this when he said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”[vii]
We are all sinners in need of God’s redeeming grace.
The good news is that through our faith in Jesus Christ, God in God’s mercy, forgives us and offers us new life. The good news is that we do not need to waste another moment of our time deciding who is a sinner and who is not.
Instead of judgement we are called to practice accountability with one another. We are called to confess our sins before God and one another. When we have a grievance with someone, we are called to take someone with us and go talk with that person.[viii] We are called as John Wesley has said to “watch over one another in love.”[ix]
Just as the song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” May we be bearers of life and hope and not judgement and may we be ever careful of the way we talk about our neighbors. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prayer: God of all of us sinners, thank you for loving us in spite of ourselves, in spite of our imperfections, in spite of our failings, in spite of our judgmental spirits. Help us to see others the way you see us. Help us to not be afraid to associate with many different kinds of people so we can see and be aware of the fullness of your creation. Help us to love our neighbors fully. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
[iv] Luke 10:27
[vii] 1 Corinthians 9:22b-23.
[viii] Matthew 18:15-17.
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