Whatever became of Sin?
Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. 1 Peter 3:18
For the next two Sundays I would like to speak on the subject, Whatever Became of Sin? The word sin has strong negative connotations. For many of us the most difficult thing is to accept the fact we are sinners. After all, don’t we try to lead good lives? We may associate sin with only especially heinous crimes such as rape and child molestation. Or, in the present state of our economy, we may blame our country’s financial troubles on the greed of corporate CEOs, Wall Street’s manipulators, and government irresponsibility and consider these to be sinful activities.
Annie Dillard tells the story in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Greek. Once upon a time, an Eskimo hunter went to see the local missionary who had been preaching in his village. “I want to ask you something,” the hunter said. “What’s that?” the missionary said. “If I did not know about God and sin,” the hunter said, “would I go to hell?” “No,” the missionary said, “Not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the hunter, “did you tell me?”
You may have observed on this first Sunday in Lent that we began our worship service with a different salutation from the penitential order:
Celebrant: Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.
People: His mercy endures for ever.
The priest then speaks words from the Gospel:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:8-9
You may notice that in the Rite 1 liturgy we use much stronger language:
Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. (The Book of Common Prayer P. 320)
For many of us such language of lost sheep, sinners and miserable offenders immediately dredges up negative feelings of low self-esteem. We notice that some of these old words simply have become fossils and do not work anymore especially among the young people. In Harper Magazine Lewis Lapham purposes that instead of using negative images about sin, he suggests the merger of the seven deadly sins with the seven cardinal virtues. The intention of this satirical solution is to downsize the virtues by recognizing the practical virtues of sin. He is of the opinion that heaven and heaven’s values have become redundant to North Americans who have created their own heavens on earth. Virtues do not meet the requirement of the global market, Lapham explains, while, on the contrary, sins sustain the stock market, keep employment rates high, excite speculation, and satisfy the public appetite for sexual and political intrigue. “Trim out the fat of the seven virtues,” he says, “and nothing bad happens to the price of real estate or the Dow Jones industrial average; take away the seven deadly sins, and the country goes promptly broke.
In today’s world there is a widespread, almost universal, loss of any sense of sin. You shall notice that we like to avoid words such as “Sin” or “Sinner.” To many un-churched people words like “damnation,” “repentance,” “penance” and “Salvation” are words from another planet. Even in the Church we have stopped using these words as part of our religious vocabulary. We are a generation which is into self-esteem building and empowerment and self-gratification. When we speak of God, we want to know him as the God of grace.
The biblical story told by Jesus of the prodigal son is now renamed “the parable of the loving father and the unforgiving brother.” We tend to think that “prodigal son” is a negative image. We want to focus on the love, forgiveness and grace of God. It assures us that no matter how far we have gone from God and no matter what we have done, we are always welcome home. The words of the collect which reads: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace” (BCP P. 100) are a reminder of God’s everlasting love, mercy and grace. There is no doubt that we have received forgiveness for our sins. Why on earth, then, do we need to confess our sins or speak of sin anymore?
We hear the echo in our culture that the church’s language of Sin and Salvation is part of the old colonial power for keeping control over people’s lives. Traditional religious language is being replaced by the language of spirituality which uses gentler words such as “stress-reduction,” “empowerment,” and “harmony.” In my own theological study in the last thirty years I have been introduced to the language of depth psychology from Freud and Erickson to become familiar with the language of sickness and health of the human soul. And, more recently as a Priest in the church, I have had to become more familiar with the language of the law and criminal justice to secure malpractice insurance for my parish so that we can stay in full compliance.
I am in fact grateful that I have learned these other languages since these are dominant in our culture today. Let me say, that I am not ready to quit and abandon the Church’s language, which offers a different paradigm for human failure. When we lose the Christian theological language and replace it with psychology, law and business we also lose the power to proclaim the good news of the gospel for the redemption and release of the sinful human soul. In my understanding there are no adequate substitutes for theological words like “Sin,” “Grace,” and “Salvation”. These words are not meant to be traded or given up for other words. Barbra Brown, an Episcopal priest says, “Replacing sin with “pathology” and repentance with “recovery” may make us feel better, but it will be hard for us to find this vocabulary in the Scripture.” Paul Tillich, a theologian, forty five years ago said that the great words of our religious tradition and heritage cannot be replaced, and that if we try to replace them, or talk around them, we find that our speech, religious or otherwise, is diminished.
As Christians we come to God with a penitent heart to confess our sins. The good news is that Jesus came to save sinners. We do not see God with a club standing to beat us down because we have failed him as miserable offenders. But as the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 reminds us, when the younger son comes to his senses he recognizes how he has hurt others in his human relationships. Accepting all this and holding himself accountable for his actions was the first act of “stress reduction” and a return to “harmony” with his family again. We call this the act of repentance. We may notice here that the father goes out to meet the returning wrongdoer and offers forgiveness before his son speaks any words of penitence. The father of the prodigal son is rejoicing for his son returning home as he says, “he is alive again! ...was lost, and is found!” The father, then, threw the biggest party on the block for his son.
Accepting our sins and faulty behaviors keeps us honest with ourselves and God. It is impossible to be spiritually healthy if we’re lying to ourselves and lying to God about who we really are. In order to be spiritually healthy, we need to acknowledge that sometimes, as the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). As T. S. Eliot put it, “The purification of the motive” is “in the ground of our beseeching.”