Sin, Evil and All That Stuff
Basics of Faith 7 – August 1, 2017
A Sermon by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald
Texts read on August 13: An Unfair World ~Paraphrase of Psalm 85 by James Taylor (printed below); Luke 15:11-32
When I was planning this series, I called this topic sin and evil and all that stuff – not to be dismissive – but because we moderns can be somewhat dismissive of the topic of sin and evil – preferring not to raise them in the context of worship.
It isn’t that the subject of sin and evil doesn’t interest, but my sense is that these words as they relate to us in a Christian context have become somewhat confusing – a bit muddy around the edges. It is my belief, that as we progress both as a species and as a culture, our definition of what lies in the realm of sin or evil changes. It isn’t that I believe sin or evil as concepts change – but what actions or ideas we would put in those categories clearly changes. And I will explain that a little further in a moment
The other thing that I want to say about the topic of sin and evil, is that we cannot talk about sin and evil without talking about grace, forgiveness, and redemption. So, the “all that stuff” part of this topic just got very big.
How is it that the things we would consider to be sins or evil change? In any culture, people who grew up in with the same value system would probably be very close in naming what things are “taboo” and what is “evil”; but are they always right? And, if the line keeps shifting, how do we find a definition that helps us to come to grips with the very real dilemma of wanting to live morally and ethically if the line keeps shifting?
Consider this, for example. There was a time in some places in North America when inter-racial marriage was considered a sin? Was it or could it ever have been a sin? We would say, “no” because what was a cultural taboo specific to a certain segment of society at a certain time in history, we don’t consider a problem at all. Here, in this place and in this time, we think such an attitude ridiculous and that a policy of racial segregation is, in itself, a sin. As humans and as a society, in the places where racial segregation was the social norm, we needed to learn more about what it meant to be human and about the problems created by systemic evil or sin – i.e., created by systems which perpetuate injustice, and the ignorance which allows injustice to flourish? Sorting out sin and cultural taboo’s is complicated and has everything to do with where and how we were raised.
Right now, in 2017 there are still cultures that engage in honour killing – i.e., if a female has sex before marriage (and it matters little whether it is because she has fallen in love, or been raped, because her non-virginity brings shame on her family), that female has to be killed in order to preserves the family honour. Such an idea is reprehensible to me, going beyond, in my mind, being a sin – bordering perhaps on evil. And it is not that I think that the people are evil, but that people can be consumed by systems and ideas which are destructive and non-life-giving. As far as I am concerned, the notion that falling in love with the wrong person, or crossing certain sexual boundaries should bring the death penalty is just not right.
The definition of sin and evil becomes very fuzzy when we cross cultural boundaries – or does it? The most important concept of our faith which I believe directs and re-directs our thoughts about sin and evil – about judgment and punishment - is “grace”. The unasked for but always offered gifts of forgiveness, redemption, and love. When we consider Grace, Forgiveness, Redemption and Love, we run smack up against Christian understandings of sin and evil, which are always trumped by grace, by love, by understanding and forgiveness.
We don’t talk much in the United Church about sin; and the reason we don’t do it, isn’t because we don’t think it is real – but because we probably are cognizant of the burden of judgment and guilt. We tend more to think in terms of growing and learning, of making mistakes and recovering from our mistakes, in terms of becoming increasingly the people God wants us to be. And yet by avoiding the talk of sin, we miss the opportunity to allow others to unburden themselves of the guilt they may already be feeling and of accessing the transforming gifts of repentance and redemption – of knowing their own worth, of the opportunity to become their best selves.
I want to talk about one of the most problematic of Christian concepts with regard to sin – that is original sin. Paradoxically, while we, in this modern age, might reject the idea of original sin because, we ask, “how can an innocent child be born in sin?”; in its most basic understanding the theological understanding of original sin probably applies to most, if not all of us. The idea of original sin has little to do with the innocence of children, and more to do with the decision of Adam and Eve to turn away from God –and thus, alienate themselves and humankind from the Garden of Eden – from God’s garden.
The story is not literal, but symbolic of the human condition – for what one of us at some point in our journey through life hasn’t turned away from what we knew was right? It is part of our journey – to question the rights and wrongs laid before us and to come to conclusions that don’t always line up with what we were taught. But is this original sin, or is it original blessing? This is a question which has caused much flux and consternation in the church. Is the gift of free will and the inevitable outcome of having free will – i.e., sometimes making wrong choices, all bad or is it a necessary part of our learning and growing? Is God more pleased if we love God because we have no choice, or if we love God, because we have free will and, having free will, to love God is our choice? Which would please you more to have someone love you because you gave them no choice, or to have someone freely choose to love you? Which is a blessing for you?
Moving beyond the concept of original sin and free will; Christian theologians often make a distinction between venial (or less serious) sins and mortal (or deadly) sins. In committing venial sin, the transgressions are committed without full awareness of wrongdoing; whereas in committing mortal sin, the perpetrator deliberately turns away from God and chooses to “sin”, to do wrong. This is a rather simple explanation, but it will do for today.
But it raises some questions for me in terms of some of our Gospel stories – in particular, the parable of the prodigal son – the younger son asks for and receives his part of the inheritance while still alive; then take this inheritance and runs off, squandering it on what basically amounts to wild living. Later, destitute he comes back, aware that he is not worthy of being called son and intends to ask if he can work as a servant for his Father. His father welcomes him with open arms, forgives him and treats him like a son – which is what he has always been to the father.
So, has the youngest son committed mortal sin or venial sin? He was, not doubt aware, that he was rejecting his father and he knew his father would not like the way he was living. Was he aware of the anguish he was causing in his parents? Could he help himself? Was he bad, or just foolish, or naïve? He was definitely, at least in my opinion, rebellious – which leaves me concerned – for I too have been rebellious in my own way. Were his sins mortal (i.e., deadly) because he rejected what he knew was right, or were they venial because he did not believe his father was right at that time, but had to learn the truth for himself? Who knows what was in his heart and head at that time in that story?
The important thing is he made a bad choice and he learned – and because of love and because of grace – his father’s love, the undeserved gift of being accepted fully back, he was forgiven and he was restored to his family. How things went at home after that the initial celebration of his return is not part of this story. But a new beginning in his family relationship is.
If we are honest, none of us escapes sin. Why I feel we hesitate, in our particular culture to apply the word ,sin, in the traditional sense of moral wrong-doing is because of the awareness and self-awareness portion in the committing of sins; because, among those who are still learning and growing (and particularly among children) to say one has sinned is to lay a heavy burden to carry and should not be laid, I believe, by one person upon another because it is for God, not for us, to judge for another what is sin, and what is the weight of that sin – what was the intention, the circumstance, the awareness the leaning of the heart. Our task is to know ourselves and to try to know God. And yet redemption, being restored to a state of grace requires our acknowledgement of what we are doing or have done and our desire to make things good.
Of all the definitions of sin and evil, the one that speaks to me the most is still that of Scott Peck – a psychologist who came to his faith when he was around 40. His definition goes something like this: If God is Love; then to sin is to be apathetic towards, ignorant of or indifferent towards love or doing the loving thing. Evil, on the other hand is the willful and intentional destruction of love. Time and time again, I have found the definition useful – especially since I find evil such a difficult thing to get a handle on.
I don’t think people are in and of themselves “evil”, but I do think that there can be a negative or destructive will or force which can subsume people and even societies, gaining energy and wreaking havoc and destruction – policies and belief systems that divide people from one another, that create inequalities and allow judgment – that make it possible for one human being to destroy another because they fail to see the other human for who they truly are. I know, we all know, that there seem to be a handful of people so immune to love that the evil they commit is unspeakable. And these leave us bewildered and at a loss, because that is not where we are and not where we ever want to be.
For many of us, our battle with evil is with corporate of societal evil - in resisting the policies, the systems, the ideas which are destructive to life – and seeing them and naming them isn’t always easy, and the choices aren’t always plain and we make mistakes – so we learn and grow and support one another in our life together.
In the midst of all our definitions and our struggle to come to terms with sin and evil is our faith. When speaking of sin, our Christian faith specifically refers to God – speaks of sin as alienating ourselves from God. And our faith, in understanding the redemptive and forgiving nature of God, leans heavily on the person and life of Jesus. Paul refers to Jesus as the new “Adam” – i.e., a new prototype for humanity.
The history of humanity in sacred scripture starts off pretty shakily. All is good for a short while and then humanity (i.e., Adam and Eve) decides to want to know what God knows and so they disobey God – eating off the forbidden tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. This is the beginning of deliberate turning away from God; i.e., original sin. But it is more than that, it is the pattern of humanity to want to know more, to be more –a necessary part of being human and of becoming.
In Jesus, Paul sees something remarkable: Jesus is born like all of us into the human world, but he is different. He lives fully out of love and grace – he heals, he restores, he forgives and even in the moments of greatest doubt and despair on the cross, he forgives. He acts always in the direction of love. This, for Paul, makes Jesus the new Adam, i.e., the new prototype of the human being created in the image of God. This now is our model: this is what it means to be human and created in the image of God.
We are, each of us born into a world of flesh and blood. We start out innocent, we grow, we stumble, we fall, we make mistakes, we learn, we make wrong choices, we make right choices – but always we are within reach of the grace, the free gift of love and forgiveness - of the love that encourages us and challenges us to be the whole and love-filled creatures we were meant to be.
And so, because we are loved, because grace is always held before us, because we desire to be whole and healed, let us bring all of who we are to God in prayer.
United Church of Canada Statements and Creeds on Communion
1925 – Basis of Union
Article V. Of the Sin of Man. We believe that our first parents, being tempted, chose evil, and so fell away from God and came under the power of sin, the penalty of which is eternal death; and that, by reason of this disobedience, all men are born with a sinful nature, that we have broken God’s law, and that no man can be saved but by His grace.
Article VI. Of the Grace of God. We believe that God, out of His great love for the world, has given His only begotten Son to be the Saviour of sinners, and in the Gospel freely offers His all-sufficient salvation to all men. We believe also that God, in His own good pleasure, gave to his son a people, an innumerable multitude, chosen in Christ unto holiness, service, and salvation.
Article X. Of Faith and Repentance. We believe that faith in Christ is a saving grace whereby we receive Him, trust in Him, and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered to us in the Gospel, and that this saving faith is always accompanied by repentance, wherein we confess and forsake our sins with full purpose of and endeavour after a new obedience to God.
Article XI. Of Justification and Sonship. We believe that God, on the sole ground of the perfect obedience and sacrifice of Christ, pardons those who by faith receive Him as their Saviour and Lord, accepts them as righteous, and bestows upon them the adoption of sons, with a right to all privileges therein implied, including a conscious assurance of their sonship.
Article XII. Of Sanctification. We believe that those who are regenerated and justified grow in the likeness of Christ through fellowship with Him, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and obedience to the truth; that a holy life is the fruit and evidence of saving faith; and that the believer’s hope of continuance in such a life is in the preserving grace of God. And we believe that in this growth in grace Christians may attain that maturity and full assurance of faith whereby the love of God is made perfect in us.
1940 – Statement of Faith
2006 – A Song of Faith
Made in the image of God,
we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.
Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Sin is not only personal
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.
We are all touched by this brokenness:
the rise of selfish individualism
that erodes human solidarity;
the concentration of wealth and power
without regard for the needs of all;
the toxins of religious and ethnic bigotry;
the degradation of the blessedness of human bodies
and human passions through sexual exploitation;
the delusion of unchecked progress and limitless growth
that threatens our home, the earth;
the covert despair that lulls many into numb complicity
with empires and systems of domination.
We sing lament and repentance.
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.
and calls us to protect the vulnerable,
to pray for deliverance from evil,
to work with God for the healing of the world,
that all might have abundant life.
We sing of grace.