Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

About this sermon series

John 8:1-11

while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and, making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Let us pray. O Lord, in your presence, open our hearts to receive your word. Open our hands that we might release every stone that we might hurl at another or ourselves. Open our eyes that we might see you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

            One of the highlights of every Sunday is the moment when we gather with the children. As our director of Spiritual Formation, Arlene, often says, “Children have so much to teach us.” One Sunday quite a few years ago, I heard a child praying in a very loud voice. “Our Father. Whose art is in heaven. Howard is your name. MY kingdom come. MY will be done.”

            I have remembered that version of the prayer many times over the years and not simply to chuckle. First, it reminds me that we often use words in the church that aren’t normal words people say… words like art and hallowed and thy. A lot our church talk needs translation to make sense, doesn’t it? Second it makes me wonder how often my thoughts and behaviors sound to God like … Lord, my kingdom come. My will be done, just covered with some fancier words about my intentions to help others or my particular interpretation of the Bible.

            Today, we are continuing in our sermon series Things Jesus Never Said, by looking at the phrase “Love the Sinner; hate the sin.” Have you heard this phrase? Usually it rolls off the tongue of Christians trying to seem loving toward people whom they believe are sinning. But today, Scripture invites us to drop the stones and stick to love.  

            It is hardly a new phenomenon for people to promote their faith by alerting others of their offenses against it and to insist their will is God’s will and to draw lines in the sand. It reminds of me a phrase my Dad often says, “Many people would serve God; usually in an advisory capacity.” But today the call is as simple as it is difficult, stick to love.

            In today’s story, Jesus is in the middle of teaching a class at the Temple when the vigilantes of vice, the purity patrol, the monitors in morality management, the sin supervisory service special unit for stoning brought a woman toward him. She had been caught in the act of adultery. Now, who knows how this was discovered long before binoculars had been invented. And who knows who or where the other half of the adultery equation might have been. But she stood there before them, no doubt humiliated and afraid and she did not deny it.

            The Agents of Adultery Accountability started to quiz Jesus on the appropriate punishment for her. Would it be stoning, which was their read of the law of Moses, or something else? The Bible names that these were gotcha questions were intended to trap Jesus, not conflicted compassion for the woman. And that’s when Jesus did something very interesting. He chose silence instead of more noise. He bent down and wrote his answer in the sand rather than stone. What is stunning to me is that his is the only writing Jesus did that we know of. Gosh, I wish I knew what he wrote. Don’t you? But he chose quiet instead of loud, sand over stone, and that is a powerful word in and of itself.

            Jesus was still kneeling when he said the famous words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The air was still silent, except the sound of his sandwriting. And maybe from where he knelt, he began to see a few sandals turn and walk away, starting with the elders. Maybe from where he knelt, he heard a few stones drop to the ground in successive thunks. And he rose again for this profoundly liberating moment with the woman. “Hmm… they haven’t condemned you?” “No sir.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Stick to love.

            Some people hear what Jesus said and are tempted to run back and pick up their stones again and say, “See! Jesus told her to sin no more! We have to tell people to stop sinning!” But if we do that, here is the problem. It means we are putting ourselves in the role Jesus in this story, and we don’t get to do that. Only the one who rolled away the stone gets to play that role.

            So what is our role?  We could see ourselves as stone stoppers, people who interrupt those who hurl harm in the name of holiness and keep them from circling in the first place.

            We could see ourselves as stone droppers, people who surrender our preferred weapon of judgment because our own hands are far from clean. One thing I have learned over and over again: it’s nearly impossible to receive grace if your hands are clenched around a stone of blame.

            Finally, we could see ourselves like this woman, someone who has been spared by the peculiar grace of God yet again. Those who are changed because we finally see something in this world stronger than the punishing circle of fear and shame, and that is the face of Christ. We start to see the face of Christ staring back at us in even the hardest moments of our lives, even from the hardest people in our lives, and it changes us. That kind of love sticks to us.

            The phrase Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin probably originated with Augustine of Hippo, a bishop in North Africa in the late 4th and early 5th century. He wrote a letter to nuns, encouraging them in their pursuit of chastity. He invited them to have a love for mankind and a hatred of sins. And it is highly unlikely he intended to coin a phrase for Christians to use regarding their dislike of other people’s sins.

            The quote also pops up next to a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s 1929 autobiography included these words along with a hefty caveat that is often left out in our conversations. He wrote, “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.”

            All that said, we can admit that at least half of the phrase is true. Jesus does love sinners. Sinners like you and sinners like me. Paul said, “This saying is reliable and should be accepted fully. Christ came into the world to save sinners, and I am the biggest sinner of all.” But here is a very important distinction. Jesus does love sinners like us, but when it comes to what Jesus commanded us to do, he used very different words. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor. And his teachings defined neighbor to include people we are not inclined to like and even people we may never meet. We donate canned beans to ECHO food pantry even if we will never know the spiritual life of the shopper. We care for the prisoner at the detention center even if we have no information about the cause of their incarceration.  We stick to love. And Jesus drew his circle in the sand even wider still. Jesus commanded us love our enemy. That is a standard so high that if we even got close, hatred itself would be irrelevant.

            Suppose this is too hard for us. Suppose we still think that despite our best efforts to love, other people are messing things up. They are perpetuating cruelty in the name of God. They are degrading and distorting what we hold dear. They are selfish and greedy and downright mean. Well, according to Paul in Romans 12:9, if we hate what is evil, then what comes next is we must hold fast to that which is good. Find that one good thing about that person even if all you can say is beloved child of God. If we hate what is evil, Paul says we have to let our love be genuine. Find ways to enact love every day, and that will keep you from cold cynicism. If we hate what is evil and think this sermon lets too many people off too many hooks, then Paul has one more homework assignment, and that is to outdo each other in showing honor.

            This summer, a fight broke out on my Facebook page when someone I knew from high school said that a post I had shared about the Enneagram personality tool was actually promoting the occult. I wanted to shut it all down, and by that I mean all of Facebook. But a pastor friend of mine responded lovingly to the guy, some long posts assuming the best, asking honoring questions, and to our astonishment, the guy thanked her and wanted to talk with her about theology in the future. I know it doesn’t always go this way, but sticking with love works on the internet.

            So, as hard as life can be, as hard as it is to understand each other, why would we ever add words to Jesus’ mouth that end up subtracting grace, grace that we all sorely need?

            Billy Graham’s daughter, Gigi, was his date to a fancy banquet in DC. It was the 75th anniversary of Time Magazine, and then president, Bill Clinton, was speaking at the event. He had just been impeached for perjury, given what he had said under oath about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. Graham sat with the Clintons and was deeply compassionate toward them. On the way home, he and Gigi discussed all the eyes watching this conversation, judging the Clintons and possibly Graham for talking to them. And Graham told his daughter, “It’s the Spirit’s job to convict; God’s job to judge; it’s my job to love.”

            Pastor Adam Hamilton remembers someone giving him a cartoon that depicted St. Peter at the Pearly Gates[1]. In the cartoon, a person steps forward hoping for admission. St. Peter found his name in the Book of Life and said, “You were a believer, yes, but you skipped the not being a jerk about it part.” We long for a church that is known for love, and not jerks. A church that removes stumbling blocks in people’s path like poverty and loneliness and despair, rather than pelting people with pronouncements about their unworthiness. A church that cares for the brokenhearted and welcomes the stranger, knees bent in prayer, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done.” Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “I have decided to stick to love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

            I’ll conclude with this beautiful benediction by Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who spoke to the world in the 1930s, another time of division and circling fear in our world.

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,

Therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; Therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone,

Therefore, we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”


[1] Historical background in this sermon and this cartoon reference owe a great deal of thanks to Rev. Adam Hamilton for his book Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say, Abingdon Press. 2016