Where Have All the Sinners Gone?
In the sobering folk tune "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" what is being mourned is not the loss of flowers, but the loss of something more precious, young men everywhere killed by war. The loss of the flowers only indicates that something much more precious has been lost. And so it is with our sermon tonight. Sinners disappearing is not what I'm lamenting. But the loss of sinners can indicate the loss of something much more precious.
That sinners are being lost, I can prove to you. Where are the ashes? Historically on Transfiguration Sunday the people brought back the palms they got on the preceding year's Palm Sunday and had them burned. Then on Ash Wednesday they came and had the resulting ashes smeared on their forehead with the reminder, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Where are the ashes? Not many churches do that anymore. It's kind of humbling to go around with dirt on your face. Some churches, recognizing that, allow you to get your ashes on your hand. We wouldn't want to be too obvious about the fact that we are sinners, would we?
There are few churches smearing ashes today and even fewer people getting them because there are no more sins. Nope, there are poor choices; there are different life styles; there is difficultly adjusting; there is "acting out;" there are defense mechanisms, and there is "just the way I am." Yes, yes, there is a great deal to be in therapy for but nothing to be repented of. There is much to shake our heads about but little to beat our breasts over.
There is a joke about one denomination that really applies to all today. It is said of this particular church body that the only unforgivable sin is using your salad fork for the main course. Yes, that's how it is among us all today. The only real sins are those things that offend society. You pour your car oil on the ground, and you are sinning. You smoke; you sin. You oppose multiculturalism and you sin. You eat too much fat, use too much salt, or not get enough exercise, and let me tell you, you are one big sinner. You have offended society at large.
There are no ashes because there are no sins. There are no more sins because there are lots of excuses. We are no different than those disciples in the upper room. "It just can't be me who is the sinner!" There are much better candidates than I. How many of those folks on Sixth Street last night are in church tonight? I come to church. I hear the Word. I don't play golf or go fishing. I try my best to keep God's Law. Other people deserve to have their faces blacken with ashes more than me!
You are not a sinner if you have excuses for your sins. Nor are you a sinner if you promise to do better. Look at this cross made of the Christmas trees that only two months ago were decorating our chancel area. These trees are stripped bear of not just all their decorations but all their foliage. What would you think of these trees promising to be greener, more alive, or prettier? You would laugh at their empty promises. Just so you and I stand tonight naked before God. None of the ways we try to disguise our sins work with God. He sees them all, even the ones we can't see. Promising Him we will do better indicates to Him that we don't realize how naked, lifeless, and ugly we really are. Doing better can't help us.
But this is not the worst of the matter. The fact that there are no more out and out, dyed in the wool, sinners is not the worst of the matter. No, what is worse is that where there are no sins, no sinners, there is no forgiveness. There can be no Absolution where there has been no confession, for who wants to be forgiven for what he or she doesn't consider a sin?
This is where we find St. Peter in our text. Jesus is making the rounds washing the dirty feet of the disciples. When He gets to Peter, Peter boldly proclaims, "You will never wash my feet." Peter wouldn't allow His Lord to humble Himself so much as to wash his feet. Don't be too hard on Peter. Do you think we would let each other wash our feet? No, no even if they were dirty ,we wouldn't want one of us washing them let alone the Lord.
But what does Jesus tell Peter? "Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me." How's that? Since when is not letting someone else do something for you that big of a deal? Since, it's Jesus. What Jesus is going forth tonight to do - be betrayed, suffer horribly and helplessly, go to hell, and eventually die on a criminals's cross - He is going to do for Peter, for me, for you, for all sinners. Peter doesn't just need Jesus to humble Himself to the point of kneeling like a servant and washing his feet. Peter needs Jesus to humble Himself to the point of being a worm and no man, as Psalm 22 says. Peter needs Jesus to humble Himself to the point of being numbered with heinous criminals. Peter needs Jesus to humble Himself to the lowest depths of hell out of sight and sound of the holy heavenly Father.
Do you need Jesus to humble Himself to such depths? Do you see how serious your sins really are? They aren't something a polite excuse or even a good excuse can take care of. They aren't something a promise here and some effort there can deal with. Your sins against your spouse, against your parents, against your God are worth the bloody death of the holy, innocent Man who is God. Your sins are worth not a jail sentence here, a fine there, or some praying here, they are worth a holy Jesus being tortured to death. They're worth even more than your back being whipped, your face being beat, and your blood being drained drop by drop. Your sins are worth God suffering that.
And He did that. God in Christ paid what your sins are really worth centuries ago. The forgiveness He won for you then was given to you when you were baptized. It was given to you tonight again when I sent your sins away from you by the Holy Absolution, and then comes Holy Communion. I'm going to give you the Body Christ gave and the Blood He shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Everywhere you look there's forgiveness. It's there in your Baptismal waters. It's here in my mouth through the Absolution, and it will be in your mouth through Holy Communion. And guess what? Where there's so much forgiving going on there doesn't need to be ashes.
Where have all the ashes gone? Well, they have disappeared because the sinners have. Some sinners have disappeared because they don't think they are sinners; for these judgement is coming. But other sinners have disappeared because they have had their sins suffered for, paid for, and sent away. For these judgement has come, and Christ Jesus bore it. Where there is plenty of forgiveness going on there doesn't have to be ashes.
We don't want to make Lent "our show;" that time of the year where we do things for Jesus whether giving something up for Him or getting ashes on our forehead. Neither do we want to make Lent the time of year when we suffer for our sins by going around hanging our heads saying "woe is me, the sinner."
Jesus teaches us this point in our text. When Peter hears Jesus say, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me," Peter understands what Jesus means. Jesus must save Peter. The Holy Jesus must be humbled in order to exalt the sinful Peter. But Peter thinks he needs much more than just a foot washing by Jesus. He needs His hands and head washed too! That's how you feel, isn't it? The Law, as it is suppose to, has made you feel totally sinful, wretched, and damned sorely in need of a bath. But that is not how you are to feel after hearing the Gospel that Jesus has put away your sins. The Law would always have your face totally black with ashes. The Gospel would never have you so marked. If you still feel like you need a bath, you haven't heard the Gospel.
Peter hadn't got it yet either. So Jesus tells him, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet." Although Peter is a dyed in the wool sinner, with more sins than the number of hairs on his head, he's already been bathed in the blood of Christ. He's been baptized; he's been absolved. Though he feels like he is still too wretched to have any part of Jesus, Jesus assures him that all he needs is a little water for his feet and he will be all clean again.
Friend, do you see what this says about Christians in a state of grace? They need just a little touch up. Your many sins of thought, word, and deed, as stinky, as dirty, as serious as they are in your conscience, do not set you outside of Christ any more than Peter's sins did. Yes, they are sins; yes they need to be forgiven; yes, they need to be sent away from you. But that is as easy as having your feet washed. That is as easy as remembering your Baptism, hearing the Absolution, or eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ. Being forgiven is as easy as having ashes placed on your forehead at service only to go home and wash them off.
Do you know why the forgiveness of your sins can be done so easily for you? Because Christ has already bore them all for you and away from you. Christ bore the coal, black dirt that was your sins 2,000 years ago. Christ has already bathed you in Baptism leaving you snow white. He can now easily wipe the smudges off in the Absolution or with His blood in Communion.
You know why this is so important to get? The devil has a way of convincing Christians they are so dirty that they can never be clean again. They despair of their repeated pet sins, and begin to believe those pets are monsters that rule them and separate them eternally from Christ. They become like prisoners on death row with nothing to lose. Their sins make them feel so hopeless that they may as well give into them because they are so far gone. But that's not the truth. The truth is they've been bathed already; they just need a little foot washing to restore them perfectly to Christ.
What I'm telling you is that the only way to deal with sins is by the Gospel not by having a bunch of laws ruling your conscience. O the Law is power all right, but not against sin. St. Paul says the Law is the power of sin not against sin. The only power against sin is the Gospel, the wonderful, sweet, complete Gospel that says Christ has taken your sins on His body and conscience, so they do not have to be on yours anymore not today, not any day.
Yes, we don't want to forget that we are sinners, and that is why it is not a bad custom to get ashes on your head to remind you of that fact. But more than that we don't want to forget that we are forgiven sinners. We have been bathed, washed, forgiven of our sinfulness by Jesus. We are to see our daily sins as no more permanent than a smudge of easily washed away ashes, as dirt on the feet of our clean body that can easily be washed away.
Where have all the sinners gone? Some have gone away because they have come to the false, sad conclusion that there is no such thing as sin. From this conclusion, may the Lord preserve us. However, other sinners have gone away because Christ has brought them to the conclusion that their sinfulness, their separation from God has been forgiven and completely healed by Christ. In this happy conclusion, may our Lord keep us by washing our feet daily. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris, Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (3-8-00), John 13: 2-10