29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter ).
You know, I wasn’t quite prepared for it when it happened. Perhaps it is because it is a question you will almost never hear asked of someone. Perhaps because it felt so exposing, so personal. But prepared or not, it happened.
“Pastor Jon, did you sin this past week?” one of our confirmation students asked me.
“Uh, umm…excuse me?” I asked, trying to hide the blood rushing to my cheeks, out of fear that he knew something about me that I didn’t want others to know.
“Did you sin in the last week?” he repeated himself.
And then I realized it. He was only asking me the same question that I ask him and all of our confirmation students every week.
You see, each week, I ask our confirmation students if any of them have been sinners in the last week. And then I ask them if any of them have been saints. The reason I do this is because this is one of the major themes in Lutheran theology. In Latin, it’s called simul justus et peccator. In English, it means simultaneously saint and sinner. In Martin Luther’s theology, he believed that all of us, every person is simultaneously a saint and a sinner. 100% saint and 100% sinner.
For those of you who are math nerds, you might be saying to yourself, “Now wait a minute…100% plus 100% equals 200%. How can anyone be 200% of something?” Well, Martin Luther isn’t interested in math. He’s interested in what he knows to be true about himself and others. That he, and every person, is a sinner, capable of regrettable and painful things. But he also knew that he, and every person, is a saint, capable of doing incredible and amazing things.
According to Martin Luther, all of us are simultaneously a sinner and a saint.
The perfect example of this showed up in my news feed last week. Henry Rickets had been out of prison for only two weeks, when he heard a mother screaming for her child. This mother’s 2-year old daughter had fallen through the broken lid of a septic tank. Rickets ran over as fast as he could and he dove into the septic tank, headfirst.
At first, Rickets couldn’t locate the girl. But he stayed down there so long that it wasn’t until he inadvertently started inhaling the septic water, that he was forced to come up for air. And so another man went in headfirst. And moments later, the girl was located and rescued. She needed CPR, but soon was breathing again and recovering in a nearby hospital.
Henry Rickets wasn’t the person to actually rescue the girl from the septic tank, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a hero in the story. In fact, a person who saw the whole event take place called him a God-send.
A God-send. How often do we think of the man just released from prison as a God-send? I am willing to bet that Henry Rickets has a good idea of what it is like to be simultaneously a sinner and a saint. But according to Martin Luther, it is not just Henry…but all of us.
And so when this confirmation student asked me if I had sinned in the last week, he wasn’t just asking me a personal question. He was asking me a theological question. Are you like me, Pastor Jon? Have you done things in the past week that you regret? And so what could I do except be honest with him. I told him that yes, I had sinned in the past week. I shared with him that I had said some things to my wife during an argument that week. Words that I wish I had never said and for which I needed forgiveness.
“Pastor Jon, did you sin this past week?” he asked. And I was startled. Because we don’t talk about sin so publicly very often. I mean, sure, every Sunday we have confession and forgiveness. But how often do we really talk about sin? I think it is because most of us, myself included, are uncomfortable with that three-letter word – sin.
But did you hear the words of John the Baptist this morning. Upon seeing Jesus, he cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” According to John’s Gospel and John the Baptist, Jesus is very interested in sin. In fact, Jesus is the one who takes it away. And so, if we are going to be serious about Jesus, then we need to be serious about sin. And yet, we are so often uncomfortable with that kind of language.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the word sin, it just sounds so full of judgment, doesn’t it? And who needs more of that in their life – judgment? So often that is the understanding we’ve grown up with. To sin is to do something wrong, we’ve been taught. You sin when you do something wrong, and so…don’t do something that is wrong. Be a good little girl. Or a good little boy. Right?
And so, if that is our understanding of sin, no wonder we don’t talk openly about it. Who needs to have all the wrong things they do and have done pointed out to them every day?
But in scripture, sin is something much deeper than that. Sin is not so much of an action, as it is a condition. Sin is not so much something you do as it is something you have.
In scripture, sin is like being in bondage – you are tied up and stuck and you just can’t get out of it. Sin is like this sickness that just won’t go away. You see, whenever I’ve been in an argument with my wife and I say something I regret, my first thought isn’t, “Well, darn, I broke a rule. I did something wrong” No, my first thought is usually, “Damn, I did it again! Why did I do that?” It is this sense that I am caught in this way of life that too often leads me to protect myself and as a result, hurt others in the process. And I can try and try and try to just get better and better, but it will always be there.
The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
Sin. It is a condition. Not an action. And that is just the personal side of it. There is this global or systemic side to it as well.
When my friend, Alan, who is a pastor in South Africa, came to Minnesota, we had lunch together. And after lunch, he asked us to drop him off at a nearby Target store. We said sure, and asked him if he needed something. He said, “No. I just have never seen a store like that before and we are getting the first one near me in South Africa.” And as I remember it, he paused and then he said, “Is it true that there are just shelves and shelves of food and racks and racks of coats?”
His point was deeper than just the question. We live in a country where 1 in 5 children are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And we have Target stores lined with shelves of food. Deep down inside each of us, we know there is something really wrong with that. And yet we feel powerless to stop it. And we keep shopping at these stores and propping up a system that supports it.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Sin. It is a condition. Not an action. And it is not something I can fix on my own but just being a good little boy. It is something I really do need saving from. And John says about Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
You see, that old understanding of sin – where it is about doing bad things and the message of the church becomes “don’t do bad things.” Have you noticed how in that understand Jesus isn’t the one who takes away the sin of the world…you are. You are the one who is supposed to just do better and stop sinning all of the time. In that understanding, Jesus doesn’t take away the sin of the world. You do….by not sinning.
And I don’t know about you, but that does little to reassure me. And little to actually inspire any change in my behavior. But our text says that Jesus the Lamb of God, is the one who takes away the sin of the world. And to take something is to claim it. To bring it close to you.
When John’s disciples, strangers to Jesus, ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” They are asking him more than a question of location. They don’t want to know if he is staying at the AmericINN or what his address is. But rather they are asking him, “Who are you? Where is home for you? What is the center of your life? And what does Jesus say? “Come and see,” he says. As if to say his home, the very center of Jesus’ life is accepting strangers and all that they carry with them, to join him on this journey of life. Come and see, he says.
And that’s how Jesus takes away sin. By accepting it. By letting it come along and enter in.
And here is the amazing thing. When I hear that Jesus accepts me, as I am. All of my faults and failures and shortcoming. Only when I know that I am accepted exactly as I am, only then do I suddenly feel whole again. Still a saint and a sinner, but also like an entirely new creation.
Preacher Tom Long was once staying in a motel in a large city. And he was surprised to see by the elevator a handwritten note that said, “Party Tonight! Room 210 – 8:00pm. Everyone is invited!” Tom could hardly picture who would throw such a party and for what reason. But he couldn’t help but imagine that around 8pm, room 210 would be filled with a wild assortment of people. Sales representatives seeking relief from being on the road. A vacationing couple tired of sight-seeing. A man stopping overnight on a long journey. A few curious and tired motel employees, fulfilling their professional duties. Perhaps some young people who had snuck out of their parent’s room, anxiously curious about what was happening in room 210.
But unfortunately, the sign by the elevator was taken down and replaced with a typewritten note by the motel staff explaining that the original note was a hoax, a practical joke. Which makes sense when you think about it, but it was also a little disappointing. “For a brief moment, those…at the motel were tantalized by the possibility that there just might a party going on somewhere to which they all were invited – a party where it didn’t make much difference who (the people) were when (they) walked through the door or what motivated (them) to come.” A party where all people come in. Just as they are.
“Perhaps if there is to be such a party, the church is going to have to throw it.” AMEN
 Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, pg. 66.
 Ibid., pg. 68-69.