“Sin boldly, but believe bolder still!” If you go to one of the websites that offer Lutheran paraphernalia you can find this phrase emblazoned across everything from t-shirts to beer steins. There’s even a bright yellow card for your wallet that says, “License to Sin Boldly” and the authorized signature is that of Martin Luther himself.
“Sin boldly but believe bolder still!” This is a phrase attributed to Martin Luther and although I have never been able to find this exact quote in any of Luther’s writings, I have found something very close to it in letters he wrote to his very good friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon was a significant part of the beginnings of Lutheranism, authoring a good number of documents in the Lutheran Confessions. However, it seems that he was virtually paralyzed by the idea that he would sin and upset God. We often think of Luther himself as being someone who was continually worried about whether or not he had confessed every last iota of sin, but it is likely that Melanchthon was even worse, saying that he was afraid to do anything, even go out of his door, for fear of God’s retribution for sin. In a letter to his friend, Luther wrote about his belief that we cannot be paralyzed by this kind of fear and that we must live, go about in the world doing God’s work, and have faith in the grace and mercy of God. “…do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.”
So, what exactly is sin? What do you think of when you hear that word? Many of us probably hear the word Sin and immediately follow it up in our minds with something akin to punishment. Sort of like the way that punishment follows the word crime. So, is that what sin is? Is sin a crime, or rather, the breaking of a law? Well if that’s the case then it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s a sin and what isn’t right? We’ve got the big ten laws, the 10 Commandments, and they’re pretty easy to follow. Don’t murder, that’s a big one and, even if we have a bad temper, that’s pretty much an easy law to obey. Just don’t kill anyone unjustly; that’s the definition of murder. I think I could go my entire life without murdering someone.
But wait, Jesus says, there’s more! In our gospel text today we hear Jesus speaking about just that very thing. “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times, you shall not murder and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” Those of ancient times are the Israelites, the people who received the Big Ten laws from God via Moses, and liable to judgment means you’ve broken the law and deserve the consequences and punishment. “But…” Oh boy! Just as soon as we hear Jesus say “But” we should know something fairly big is about to change. Most of the time it is a great declaration of God’s amazing grace and how he is here to turn the world upside down and heal everything that is broken in the world. Yup, we can get ready for some good news here!
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Ummm, good news? He goes on to talk about how bad it is to insult your brother or sister and if you call them a fool… well that doesn’t even bear thinking about! You can’t even give an offering to God if you are at odds with someone else! Suddenly, this whole it-is-easy-to-not-murder thing takes on an entirely new dimension. If ‘thou shalt not murder’ is just one of the Big Ten, then our whole notion of what sin is just got a lot more complicated. It seems as though Jesus is teaching that sin isn’t just about keeping a set of specific laws set down by God and being sure that God isn’t mad at us because we did a no-no like bad kids. It seems that sin may also have something to do with our relationship with other people, too…….