Someone recently commented that, in the Victorian Stage 4 lockdown, churches and brothels fall into the same category of activity and therefore restriction. Someone else quipped that both accept sinners! (Here.)I like that. Although it is a bit too easy to say compared to its practice. Contemporary society, allegedly, has moved beyond 'sinner' and the judgementalism that follows. However, using the word 'sinner' isn't necessarily judgemental. If you think it is necessarily judgemental then read on because I suggest you might still be stuck in the tight little circle of judgementalism that you are trying to leave. Scared that it might be true, we reject it. Protesting too much, so to speak.
These last few Sundays we have been reading the stories from Genesis about Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. The stories are about their schemes to make God's promise to them come true. (For the original promise, reiterated over and over throughout Genesis, see Genesis 12:1-3.) God doesn't need their schemes to bring about the promise, although God is free to use the schemes. (For example God doesn't need the scheming that brings about Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael. See Genesis 17:15-22. But God uses the scheming of Joseph's brothers to ensure the survival of the people of Israel during the great famine. See Genesis 37-46:7.) The stories show us a God who is accommodating of all kinds of human shenanigans and failures. The fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah, fulfilled in Jesus, is no cause for human pride. God's plan is not accomplished by human (self-)righteousness. It is God who brings about what God promises. But this is more than God just putting a brave face on a hidden resentment toward us. This is not the God of projected human self-righteousness and self-criticism. This is the God who can teach us how to relate to human failure (sin), both our own and the inadequacy and failure of others. This is what God is really like, through and through. God is with the people in promise and fulfilment, in covenant and law, with them, carrying them, loving them, making space for them, and ultimately saving us.
We see this in Jesus, intensely in his crucifixion and resurrection. God with us. Victim of human sin, literally carrying the instrument (symbol) of human sin, a cross. And from within the experience of bearing that sin bringing life and forgiveness. It is this God, with us (Matt 1:22-23; 28:16-20) truly walking our human life with us in the flesh: the life and death of Jesus, the God who makes space for sinners because God is love, it is this God to whom we relate as sinners. But that is not how most people think of the term 'sinner'. James Alison (here) says our language has a different tone than what people might think. (Words like God commands, desire, will, law. And, as I am saying here, a word like sinner.)
But not just our language changes. We are changed. "Sinner" isn't a term to demean, but when uttered in the Christian context, by a God who knows us and loves us, who truly empathises with us in Jesus, sinner becomes a term of grace. Sinner: I don't need to be perfect, I don't need to save myself, I am loved, known even in my human failure. There is nowhere left to fall away from God in Christ.