Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Thinking about Sin

I have been attending Baptist churches since the day I was born. I have heard so many sermons that I can’t remember them all. Many of the sermons included some kind of formulation against living a sinful life. There have been attempts to define sin. There have been those who have graded sins and those that have rightly tried to level the playing field by recognizing that no sin is better or worse than another. The place that I become uncomfortable is when someone starts trying to list sins. They always have some verse from the Bible to back up whatever wrong-doing they are against today and they are convinced that God is on their side against that very thing. There are also those who reject any idea that sin is relative. They say things like, “If something is a ‘sin’ then it is a sin for all” or “Right is right and wrong is wrong.”

As a quick side note, I do find it interesting that ALL of the major world religions have some things in common that are considered “sin”. Even many non-religious people will say that something like “murder” is a sin. There seems to be something universal about one person taking the life of another that is particularly reprehensible. In broad terms, I think sin is something that interferes with our ability to be connected with God and others. Many or most Christians would say that any “sin” automatically alienates us from God. The problem is that so many people seem to have different lists of what is on that list and what is not. People have picked and chosen rules from the Levitical code of laws that suit them while rejecting others as culturally irrelevant. The problem is that different groups pick different sins.

For several years, I have been reflecting on the fact that Jesus summed up all of the law in two commandments that he called the greatest commandments. In Matthew 22: 36-40 Jesus quotes portions of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 and says, “'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' "This is the great and foremost commandment.”The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." The entirety of my thoughts on this passage have been shared in lectures and workshops and will have their place some day. However, I will offer a summary.

The two most important things that a person can do are get their own relationship right with God and love others. Getting the relationship right with God is not about a one-time decision to accept Jesus’ gift of grace nor is it simply developing a list of things not to do so that God will be happy with you. Getting the relationship right with God is about acknowledging our own brokenness and failures, past and present, and acknowledging our own giftedness and potential. One helps us discover how to be involved in the world and the other helps us maintain humility with others. The part about loving others as yourself means that first we acknowledge the humanity of each person. We cannot simply see others as the divisive labels that we put on each other like Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jew, Black, White, Straight, Gay, Lost, or Saved, etc. Just because we know something about someone, does not mean that we know everything about someone. Each person is individual and each person is a…person with a story and feelings, and so on. If we are to love the other as ourselves, then we must want to hear the others’ story as much as we want others to hear ours. We must seek to understand others as much as we want to be understood. Beyond that, if we are to love others as we love ourselves, then we must help the other when they struggle with their brokenness and failures – not ridicule and attack. We must seek to help others discover the fullness of their potential and all that God created them to be.

Sin, for me, then becomes anything we do or think that denies our own brokenness and supposes superiority; it is the failure to acknowledge our own frailties and struggles. However, it is also whatever we do or think that keeps us from seeing the giftedness we have been given by God. When we treat ourselves like we don’t matter, we deny the God in whose image we are created. Likewise, sin against another is when take advantage of the vulnerability of the other or attack the frailty of the other. Sin against the other is denying the image of God that is in us all.

This can be stated in a positive in that we should seek to know ourselves fully, as God knows us. We should seek to see others as God sees them and to seek to embody the grace and love of God towards others. Too many times, sin is reduced to a list things we should not do, however, sin comes into full view for us when we set our hearts on offering love and grace to others; to treat them as fellow humans on the journey of life; and help them become all that they were created to be. How can we seek to harm another, take advantage of another, use another, or hate another when we are seeking to help them become all that God created them to be? And the same would be true of activities that affect us in our own relationship with God.

This reflection is why most sermons and lessons on “sin” seem so watered down and meaningless. When our purpose in life is more about relationships - with God and others – a simple list of do’s and don’ts seems so superficial.