SIN-EATER – OR SIN-BEARER? A Communion Meditation – Jack Cottrell

QUESTION: Do you think it is acceptable for someone giving the communion meditation to just read or otherwise relate what someone else has written?

ANSWER: Of course it is! That is why someone like me goes to the trouble of writing and publishing such meditations! In fact, here is one I just prepared and shared with my congregation recently:

From time to time in modern fiction we see a character called the “sin-eater.” One story that many remember is a 1972 episode from “The Night Gallery” called “The Sins of the Fathers” (starring, of all people, “John Boy” Walton, otherwise known as Richard Thomas). A 2007 movie was called “The Last Sin Eater.” One of the Spider Man villains was “Sin Eater”; this figure was also a character in a recent Green Arrow (“Arrow”) TV show.

The fact is that the name “sin-eater” is based on actual historical events. In recent centuries, up into the early twentieth century, in Europe and the British Isles (and some say Appalachia), many communities and villages had a character literally known as the sin-eater. When someone died—especially unexpectedly—there was concern that he or she might not be at peace in the next world, because of unforgiven sins.

So the practice was to prepare a simple meal – bread or biscuits (“dead-cakes”), along with a container of ale or beer or wine – and place it on the body of the laid-out dead person. Then the local sin-eater was called in (and paid a small amount— maybe the equivalent of a few dollars) to perform his grisly task. He would then give an incantation or a prayer over the body, and consume the meal.

The belief was that by consuming this dedicated food and drink, this “sin-eating” person was literally consuming the sins of the deceased one, thereby transferring his sins to the sin-eater himself. In this way the dead person was believed to be delivered from the condemnation of his sins, and was free now to go on into the next life in peace.

But what about the poor sin-eater himself? Basically he lived as an outcast and was avoided like a leper, since it was assumed that he had absorbed all the filth and evil of his “customers.” He lived in poverty and solitude.

The question now is – What can we learn from contemplating this unpleasant bit of history? For one thing, people are correct to fear punishment after death. We should never forget this warning from Hebrews 9:27, that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (ESV). Also, this fascinating practice shows that people are desperate to know that their sins forgiven! Who wants to die and enter eternity loaded down with their sins?

The sad truth, however, is this: though some people at one time really did put their trust in such “sin-eaters,” it was obviously a completely futile effort. There is no way that such a thing could work! Who can imagine that one person could actually take upon himself the sins of others, and deliver them from their deserved condemnation?

But wait a minute! This DOES sound a bit familiar, doesn’t it? It is true, of course that a merely human being—especially a sinful one such as we all are—could never in fact actually accomplish this. BUT—there WAS once a man who did something like it—FOR REAL! He could do this because he was not just a man, but a sinless man (Heb. 4:15), and because he was more than a man: he was also God in the flesh (Col. 2:9). His name was Jesus; and though “he was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3), he loved every human being so much that he took all the sins of the whole world upon himself. He swallowed them all, if you please, and with them he tasted and consumed all the deaths that sin has brought upon us (Heb. 2:9). Indeed, he washed them down with a cup full of the wrath of God—an unimaginable act of submission expressed in his words in Gethsemane just before the cross: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me . . . . My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42).

I am not suggesting that we call Jesus a “sin-eater.” There is too much baggage with that term. But it is appropriate that we do call him the SIN-BEARER. As 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” When Jesus died on the cross, he was taking the full load of our sin and guilt and condemnation upon himself. He was paying the penalty for our sins. And if you want it to apply to you and be marked down to your account, you cannot wait until your body dies to call the Sin-bearer in! You must do it in this lifetime!

Christian brothers and sisters, this is what happened to us as soon as we became Christians. In the moment when we were baptized, we experienced a death! We were laid out in a watery coffin, where we died with Christ to our sins (Romans 6:1-6). What Jesus had already done for us on the cross literally became a reality for us in that moment! That’s where “our old self was crucified with him” (v. 6). We are now at peace with God, and ready to “enter eternity” unburdened by our sins! “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Now that we are here at the Lord’s table, we are about to have a little meal (very little!). But this is not a meal where your sins and their punishment are being removed by eating or by dying or by anything else. That has already happened! Remember this chorus many of us used to sing as children: “Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Yes my sins are gone! Now my soul is free and in my heart’s a song! Buried in the deepest sea; yes, that’s good enough for me! I shall live eternally! Praise God, my sins are gone!” So here, and every Lord’s Day, in this Lord’s Supper, we are here to CELEBRATE what our Sin-Bearer has already done for us!

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