The Third Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, let’s talk about sin.
Yes, of course, almost all sermons are in some sense about sin, and sin is certainly mentioned a great deal in the hymns and readings of the Church. But let’s take a moment today to address sin head-on, to define it, to look at what it’s really made of, and, because we are Christians, what God has to say about it.
The diligent observer of political history will correctly note that morality cannot be successfully legislated—that is, passing laws doesn’t make people moral; laws can only restrain and punish people. Yet sin and morality are constantly in political news. Sin is also a dominant theme in our entertainment.
Whether the issue is abortion, same-sex attraction, euthanasia, assisted suicide, drug abuse, or even how one finances political campaigns, sin is constantly at the forefront of our public life. But almost no one uses the word sin any more when discussing these things, except perhaps those cruel and obnoxious people from the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church” who like to picket military funerals. Sin has become an unpopular word. Even mentioning something as sin is likely to get you labeled as a hateful bigot.
But what is sin? Sin is anything that distances us from God. The Greek word for sin used in the New Testament, hamartia, literally means “missing the mark.” Thus, whenever we fire the arrows of our life and do not hit the mark that has been set up by God, we are sinning.
We often think of sin in terms of crimes against a divine law, and so when we sin, we make God angry with us. But God isn’t subject to such sinful passions Himself. You can’t make Him mad. Even language about God’s “wrath” that is to be found in Scripture cannot be understood to depict a God Who flies off the handle. Talk about God’s “wrath” is simply an attempt to understand what we experience when we sin.
I think the best way for us to understand sin is as a malfunction. God created the universe and mankind to function in a particular way, perfect and balanced and beautiful. He had a design, and He made us according to that design. But our ability to function well was dependent on staying plugged in to the Giver of Life Himself. And Adam and Eve unplugged us.
As someone who used to be employed in the live music business, I sometimes like to think of mankind like an electric guitar. If you unplug it from the wall, you can of course still play it, but it’s very muted. Mankind without the energy of God can function a little bit, because of God’s design, but we will never be able to make music the way we’re intended while we remain unplugged.
The problem with the world today is that, for so long, we’ve been hearing an unplugged electric guitar and assuming that that is what the music is all about. Little do we know that we were not only meant to be plugged in, but that there are a variety of amps and effects pedals that we can plug in, as well. But we’re malfunctioning, so most of that escapes our ears.
When God tells us not to sin, it is not because He has made up a bunch of arbitrary laws that He’s looking for an excuse to zap us over if we disobey them. Rather, he’s telling us that if we want to “rock out” on the electric guitar that He designed us to be, only certain things will get you there. There are plenty of techniques and options once you plug in, but if you don’t plug in, you won’t make the music. If you unstring the guitar, you’ll make even less. If you bang the guitar against the power amps, that’s not music, either. (Note that most of the bands who do that wait until the end of the concert!)
Morality is really simply what it takes for mankind to make the music he was meant to make. It’s not about judging or condemning anyone. It’s about what works.
There are a lot of kinds of sins, just like there are a lot of ways to make an electric guitar malfunction. Some sins, I am tempted to commit. Others, I am not tempted to commit. But it’s all still sin. It all still unplugs me from God’s divine energy. Sin isn’t bad for me because I’m not following the “rules.” Sin is bad for me because it disconnects me from God.
So when God looked at the world and saw that we were a bunch of sinners, did He storm from Heaven and smite us all with bolts of lightning? Did He shout out in anger and level our cities? Did He picket funerals and tell us that He hates us for our sins? Today’s epistle reading from Romans tells us what He did: “But God shows his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
When God looked at a world full of rotten, broken, messed up sinners—including me—His response was to come here and die for us. As it also says in that passage from Romans, “For while we were still weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly.” God looks at our sin not as creating a bunch of guilty people, but rather in creating weakness. Sin leaves us weak, malfunctioning, unable to do and be what He made us to do and be.
As we look at our world, which more and more is redefining sin as “freedom” and “civil rights,” we have to remember what sin really is and how God approaches it. Abortion is sin because it kills a child. Yes, people who commit abortion are often suffering in other ways, too, but they’re still killing a child. The same is true of euthanasia or assisted suicide—an innocent life is being destroyed. Homosexual acts are sin, just like any other sexual act outside of marriage as God designed it, because they are not God’s design for us. Yes, people with that temptation have been made to suffer for it, but that is because of the cruelty of some sinners toward other sinners, not because God is cruel.
It really does not matter whether we were born with the temptations we face. Being “born this way” (to quote the pop philosopher Lady Gaga) does not mean that it’s natural or good. Lady Gaga is right when she says that “God makes no mistakes,” but what we’re living in is not the world as God designed it or human nature as God designed it, but as man has distorted it. What we inherit from Adam and Eve is not human nature as God designed it. We inherit a malfunctioning human nature, unplugged from the divine energy.
It really does not matter whether we have suffered, either. Sin is still sin. Nothing justifies it, and sinning doesn’t make our suffering better. Indeed, sinning because we have suffered is really the same dynamic that causes blood feuds between families and nations. That is what revenge is—an attempt to release the suffering through sin. But sin never releases suffering, despite whatever momentary emotional reward we may experience. Sin always disconnects us more from God.
It doesn’t matter how we personally feel about it. What matters is the objective reality about how God designed us to function. We may not understand all of His teachings about what works best, and sometimes the results of following or not following them may not be apparent until we reach the next life (though they often show themselves here, too), but the true character of sin is that it is malfunction. It will always be malfunction, even if the world redefines it to be something else or we personally feel like it should be something else.
But God’s love for us is so powerful and strong that He doesn’t want us to stay in our malfunction. He wants to heal us, to plug us in to the life-giving energy that only He provides. That means that we have to respond to the free gift of healing and wholeness He offers by getting rid of our sins that distance us from Him, whether they are sins of commission like some of the things we have named, or whether they are sins of omission like neglecting worship in favor of entertainment or other worldly pursuits. Either way, they’re pulling us away from God, whether through quick jumps in committing evil acts or through gradual decay in not making Him the center and focus of our whole lives.
The only cure for sin is to pay attention to and take hold of the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), to commit ourselves and each other and our whole life to Christ our God.
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.