Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Happened to Sin?


A seminary professor with years of parish experience once told me—in fact, he once told a classroom full of seminarians—that nobody is interested in hearing about sin anymore.  As sermon themes go, it’s a non-starter.  Sermons that work, he continued, focus on human problems like loneliness and fear of failure or on our duty to pursue social justice.
He may not have meant this, but the point I took away was that sin is passé as a sermon theme.   And at one level I completely agree.  
Progressive preachers focus elsewhere for theological reasons.  

Popular evangelical preachers like Joel Osteen rarely mention sin in their sermons, although perhaps for pastoral or evangelistic reasons.  

And as for me, the central message of any sermon should focus on the Good News: God’s love for us justifies our lives in the Cross of Christ.  Sin is simply the Bad News that the Good News addresses.
So what has happened to sin in at least one spectrum of sermons? It has not actually disappeared.  Some preachers have redefined and renamed sin.  While this theological revision has an initial popular appeal, its enduring effect is negative.  I’ll explain what I mean by starting with a brief working definition of sin.

Sin is fundamentally a problem between God and human beings.  As individuals and as groups we violate God’s law.  To put it another way, we make something less than God our highest principle.  Sin breaks our relationship with God.  The result is broken relationships with each other and personal disintegration.  
The traditional Christian teaching is that only God can repair the breach between God and humans.  In the Cross of Christ we are restored to relationship with God.  Moreover, our healed relationship with God is the foundation for repairing broken human relationships and restoring our individual lives to integrity and balance.
Preaching the Gospel, in other words, has always been about preaching the Good News.  Talking about sin was never the central point.  Instead, acknowledging sin amounts to explaining the Bad News so that we can understand the Good News of the Cross.
So if some say that sin is no longer the Bad News, what is it? It is a problem between humans.  Powerful groups capriciously exclude powerless groups.  The Bad News is that there are social structures and institutions that marginalize, oppress or simply demean less powerful groups of people.  In the individual heart this takes the form of prejudice and fear of difference.
To put this a slightly different way, some define the basic human problem as our long-engrained habit of producing insiders and outsiders.  Those who take this view recast sin as exclusion and reduce the Gospel to an imperative to work always and everywhere for inclusion.
For example, sermons of the sort I have in mind tend to see Jesus' frequent meals with tax collectors, harlots and sinners as acts of inclusion. (Matt. 9:9-13)  He ate with social outcasts in order to underscore the capriciousness of their exclusion and condemn the practices and attitudes that marginalize and demean anyone.  In other words, the word "sinner" is considered just the insider's code for people they wanted to exclude.  And Jesus would have nothing to do with this kind of social dynamic.
Before going one step further, let me say clearly that bigotry is a sin.  Laws, social institutions and economic practices that promote the systematic oppression and dehumanization of anyone are sinful.  But equating these cases with the basic human problem confuses the symptom for the disease.
Our separation from God is the disease.  Various forms of exclusion are symptoms of our condition.
Let’s look at it this way.  Holy Scripture (Romans 3:23) and Tradition teach us sin that is universal.  Presumably the new human problem should be universal as well.  But that is not how it turns out.
I can say, “Every departure from God’s will is bad.”  For example, I can never say that a mean-spirited comment to my parent is good.  It violates the commandment to honor my mother and father.  Blunt honesty may be the right way to honor an alcoholic or abusive parent, but intentional cruelty honors no one.
However, I can say, “Sometimes exclusion is a good thing.”  Quarantining the sick is  a reasonable public health practice during a raging epidemic.  Refusing admission to a university for inadequate preparation or past performance may be disappointing to the rejected student, but it is yet another reasonable practice.  
Of course reasonable practices can be abused, but the point remains the same.  Exclusion is not always bad, so it does not truly substitute for sin.  This suggests that we are dealing with a symptom and not the underlying condition.
When we clearly saw that sin is the problem, we recognized that only God himself can provide the solution.  However, focusing on exclusionary human practices, prejudices and phobias leads us to believe that human action can solve the problem.  
Legislation, social programs and educational programs bear the burden of conquering once and for all the basic human problem.  That’s because this perspective suggests that God has painted us a picture of his Kingdom.  That kingdom is a just social, political, and economic order on earth.  With enough initiative, energy and perseverance we can achieve it.
In other words, the redefined bad news leads us to expect heaven on earth and burdens us with achieving it.  The problem, of course, is that earth is not heaven and we cannot turn it into heaven.  Here’s what happens instead.
We seek to change people’s behavior and to alter their thinking.  We are then surprised to discover that one-sided, often demeaning power relationships reemerge.  Hegel called it the master-slave dialectic.  
Outsiders win the day announcing the arrival of a new era.  In a matter of time, the old insiders find themselves to be the new outsiders.  The former outsiders now occupy the position of insiders.  The game remains the same.  The players have merely switched positions.
The words of an old friend ring in my ears.  “There you go trying to stamp out original sin again.”  In other words, we humans can change to external shape of our condition, but our problem lies deeper.  It’s the human heart.  (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19)
We were born with disordered affections.  Each and every one of us.  The moral transgressions we commit arise from our twisted heart.  Leaving the heart unchanged results in the same old transgressions dressed in new, initially unrecognizable clothing.
Talking about sin for its own sake is a buzz kill.  But recognizing sin for what it is gives us the first step to hearing the genuinely Good News.  In Jesus Christ, we are a new creation.  Being renewed in Christ makes a new way of relating to each other possible.
The Church has much work to do addressing poverty and prejudice.  But only Christ himself can address the root cause.  As a result, we should not forget that bringing others to Christ will always remain at the center of our mission as his disciples.
(The image above is Il Tintoretto's Cain and Abel found at the following link.)

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