Sin and Forgiveness
 — Rev. Tom Jones

June 10, 2012

Genesis 3: 8-15
Mark 3: 20-35

How do we hear these texts speaking to us today? Jesus talking about the unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and Adam & Eve eating the fruit of the tree they were not supposed to touch or they would die. Let’s begin by trying to understand that these are not shallow, irrelevant passages about trivial issues; no, the point of these passages directly deals with the most troubling aspects of our human condition. Both of these texts address how we all deal with the problem of sin & forgiveness. They show us something about the nature of sin, and they even correct our tendency to define the biblical concept of Sin as being nothing more than certain behaviors or words.

The richness & depth of the Genesis story is that we may discover more layers of meaning in the story of Adam & Eve as we mature from childhood, through adolescence, and all through the stages of growth in adulthood. Like a little kid who has one hand in the cookie jar, and then turns to see if his parent has caught him in the act, so too we see Adam & Eve attempting to hide their nakedness from their Creator. Step One: awareness of sin! We learn early on that there are things we are supposed to do, and things we are not supposed to do. Maybe as children we even learned that breaking rules or laws is a definition of what church folk mean by the word “sin”. Next we may have learned that Christianity has a three step formula for dealing with sins: Confession (admitting you were wrong), Repentance (sincerely trying to change), and Accepting Grace. However, maybe in adolescence, or a few years later, we probably run into some questions about the nature & process of forgiveness. What happens if someone sins against you (treats you abusively ) and does not confess it nor repent at all?  {I suspect our primary interest in sin, is really about other people’s sins, and less about our need to forgive!}  Does the Confession, Repentance, Forgiveness formula mean that forgiveness is only possible if the first two steps are completed correctly? What if the person who has committed a sin in the past dies before being forgiven? Maybe at this point we begin to wonder if we are really understanding the biblical wisdom about this whole issue, or if we have gotten off-track in how we define these terms.

Some people feel that the correct definition for the theological term, “sin”, is synonymous with human nature. We often have our opening prayer in worship services as a Confession of Sin, because we look at all the problems in this world & figure that “all have sinned and gone astray.” Everybody needs to reflect on their own failures, mistakes and apathy, and to own up to what you have done wrong lately.  From a psychological perspective, there is more than a grain of truth to this assessment. But, is this a biblical definition of the human condition? Is this really how God views us? Or does the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament speak about the problem of human behavior from a larger perspective? Not that the Bible ignores sin, violations of commandments, or any other deviation from what God is calling us to be; the Bible does not lower expectations nor condone cruelty, selfishness or apathy. However, I suspect that modern Christians and agnostics alike make a serious mistake when we equate sin with our basic human nature. The Bible actually does not say that sin is our main problem, rather the Bible says that sin is one of our problems, but there are many other problems, like spiritual blindness, physical infirmity, bondage, exile, or other conditions that trap us and prevent us being whole & healthy.  It is not accurate to describe every problematic human condition as being caused by our own individual sins, and the Bible takes this insight very seriously from the first Book of the Old Testament through the end of the New Testament. When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, God explained that these rules are guidelines to be able to live as free people, and they form the basis of how we make God central in our lives and how we should treat each other. The point of the commandments was not to create another system for judging other people’s behavior, not to make us feel guilty, but to give us our freedom. The real problem of sin is not about individual mistakes that we call sins, but the bigger problem is how the power of sin can separate us from the love of God.  Adam & Eve committed a sin by not following God’s direction, but what happened next was that they chose to try to hide from God. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is explaining that we need to be connected with God and avoid evil, and whoever does the will of God is like Christ’s family. Jesus says, “I give you my word, every sin will be forgiven…” You see Jesus is not saying that our sins or misbehavior is what causes the most harm, but rather separating ourselves from God’s Love, that is what causes us to become lost. Separating ourselves from God happens when we try to make our individual identities more important than God. When we think that we are the source of all truth and love, we can define Good and Evil, we can declare that military superiority is more important than compassion. When we turn from honoring God’s values to saying that we have a better sense of healthy priorities, then we are probably moving into a state of sin that is far more dangerous than specific behaviors or personal sins. When we allow some snake to tell us what to do, or we become snake-like in deciding that we know what is true better than God, we separate ourselves from God’s love & compassion. When we act out of our own self-interest at the expense of our community, or our natural environment, then we are living in a state of sin, separated from God’s love. When we act like we are God, we cause bigger problems, and the solution is not simply to be forgiven; what must happen first is a deep transformation of our priorities and our awareness of what life is all about. So the problem with living meaningful worthwhile lives is not primarily about committing some misbehavior that needs to be forgiven, it is about how we need to grow in love and compassion, instead of obsessing about how we need more comfort and security at the expense of everyone else in the world.

People in bondage need liberation from dictators, not just personal forgiveness of their sins; people who are outcasts need acceptance in community; people who are sick need healing. Jesus even made a joke of this tendency of the pharisees (and many of us today) to think of every human problem as being about the personal sins of the person who is suffering; when Jesus healed the crippled man, whose friends had just wrecked a roof to lower him through the ceiling to be healed, Jesus asked the religiously self-important experts, “Is it easier for me to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”  We have gotten so focused on individual sins and the need for forgiveness, that we seem to forget that there are other problems which also require our action as a people of God.

We don’t like to recognize the “social sins” of racism, sexism, class oppression, slavery in all its contemporary forms, or materialism as a cultural priority; these forces also cause people to be separated from feeling the love of God, these forces distort our fellow living human beings into superficial objects devoid of love given or received. The answer to injustice is not just forgiveness; we need transformation & reconciliation to reconnect ourselves with our Creator. There is another good reason for why our theology and our biblical interpretation need to grow beyond a focus on sin and forgiveness. When we limit the major point of God’s work to forgiving sin, human beings tend to get themselves involved with figuring out the implications of other people’s sins; we get judgmental. If we realize that the bigger problem is about the state of sin, or our separation from God, then we can hear the Bible describing all of the ways we need to be working to help people in bondage, in exile, and in need of healthy minds & bodies.

This morning we will be celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion, which is a tangible & visible way for us to reconnect ourselves with God. This act of eating and drinking together reflects the way Jesus chose to eat with people the world judged as sinful, in order to restore a healthy relationship with God. Through this sacrament we ask God to strengthen our bodies and our spirits so that we can confront evil, restore broken relationships, and practice compassion. Through this sacrament we acknowledge that Love is stronger than fear or apathy and that God’s love can guide our lives to grow in wisdom and truth. In our church you are welcome to participate in this sacrament if you wish to have God’s Love guide your life, no matter where you are on life’s journey. It is more than accepting that your sins are forgiven, it is really an affirmation that we are called to work for justice and peace as partners with our Lord.

Thanks be to God.