(This is the third sermon in a Lenten series on sin. In the first sermon, we looked at sin as it relates to the past through the images of original and demonic sin. In the second sermon, we saw how sin relates to the future through a fear of physical, emotional, and spiritual death.)
In this final sermon in this series, we will look at sin as a violation of relationships which can come in many forms. We shall center on two of these forms as we continue our emphasis on sin not so much as the evil we do but as our refusal to grow, expand, and say “Yes” to God, to life, and to our potential.
Sin as a violation of relationships can come in our refusal to give. From conception on, we are dependent on others—on their giving to us. But the temptation comes in seeing the giving toward us not as an enriching, mutual process that calls us to do our own giving, but as what is owed to us—what is our right and due. It is possible for us to assume that since we have been helped, we ought to be helped, and it is our basic right to receive this help. And so, our own egos and desires determine the value of others. In so far as they can contribute to our wellbeing, they are valued. And in so far as they do not do so, they are of no significance. As a result of this distorted value system, we develop the world of the Big I—a world of I, me, and mine. I become the center of the universe. And as we develop this consciousness, we exert little energy in attempting to understand others’ viewpoints, needs, and dreams except as they becomes useful to us and our wellbeing and advantage.
We become receivers of the good and give to others only to make sure they will continue to give to us. And so, human beings made in the image of God become objects to be valued in terms of their utility. We are all inclined to believe that although others may suffer from this distortion, we are somehow not guilty of the same weakness. Perhaps we should consider the wisdom of Carl Jung who said, “Only a fool is interested in other people’s guilt, since he cannot alter it. The wise man learns only from his own guilt.” The Apostle Paul said more than he may have realized when he wrote, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” None of us are exempt from this violation of the holy being of others.
What we are talking about is the sin of pride which is always a distortion of life and of the way things truly are in the eyes of God. Every person is created in the image of God, and thus every person is a precious center, but only God is the absolute center of the universe. And because every person is a center (and not the center), every person is a receiver and a giver. This receiving and giving is a process, not a legalistic, tit-for-tat arrangement to be measured and calculated. When we violate the truth that we are all givers and receivers, we sin against ourselves and others. We shackle ourselves by refusing to participate in the vibrant and beautiful dance of life. And we withhold from others the enrichment our giving can contribute to their wellbeing.
The second way we violate relationships is in the refusal to receive. Here we take the saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and ignoring all other truths, cling only to that one. (It’s interesting that historically, heresy has been defined as clinging to one truth or belief to the exclusion or detriment of all other truths and legitimate beliefs.) We take it to our hearts with a vengeance and a fanaticism as we see ourselves totally at the disposal of others. We strive to respond to all demands made upon us, neglecting ourselves for the sake of others. And when in doing so, we become tired and worn out, we console ourselves by viewing our refusal to receive as the cross we must bear. We dare not receive a compliment, accept any affirmation, or ask for any assistance. In other words, we dare not receive.
Of course, the refusal to receive is less likely to be viewed negatively than is the refusal to give. In fact, we tend to see such people as real saints and admirable martyrs who are unselfish through and through. But we must not confuse being unselfish with being selfless. Unselfish, yes; selfless, no! To be selfless is to insult the Creator who made us in the divine image and who seems to rejoice in variety, multiplicity, and uniqueness.
The refusal to receive is also a distortion of the way life is and was meant to be. We are as dependent on others as we would like to think they are on us. When we refuse to give, we focus on a fake understanding of ourselves—we see ourselves as absolute by making ourselves the subject of all others. But what happens when we refuse to receive? At first glance, it appears that we focus on others—that we see others as absolute by making ourselves their objects to use and abuse (and for a few people with very poor self-images this may be true.) But for most of us, when we refuse to receive, we still are focusing on ourselves. We become the subject of all others, and they all depend on us. “How did the world ever get along without me!”
In both cases—the refusal to give and the refusal to receive—we do not allow for the full meaning and potential of our lives to unfold. We were meant to be both receivers and givers. We were meant for the mutuality and communion of relationships, of being together. But when we refuse to give or to receive, we thwart that divine intention. We make ourselves the absolute center of our universe, and thus deny the interdependence which is essential to who and why we are.
We have come to a point with this third sermon where we see that sin at its most basic core is distortion. Sin is the Big Lie we tell and live. We distort the past by either seeing it nostalgically as ideal or refusing to recognize God’s presence and the goodness in that past. And we distort the future by ignoring the horizons which God can give which allow for authentic newness. With present relationships, the Lie is found in the denial of the interdependence which exists between the one and the many—the denial of the give and take which occurs between us as individuals and the rest of the world. And when we live this Lie, we cut ourselves off from the richness, potential, and resources of life. The more we live this Lie, the more entrapped we become in its lonely web and the harder it becomes to break lose.
We need a force and a new understanding which can liberate us from the destructive and restrictive identities we have made for ourselves and which can move us on as we develop the redemptive self intended by God. Paul in I Corinthians certainly understood the necessity of interdependence, the give-and-take existence destined by the Creator. Paul’s favorite term for the church is the Body of Christ. We are all members of Christ’s Body. We all have our places under God. No part is to dominate, and no part is to be excluded. We are all individually members of the Body, and our interdependence and mutuality are so deep and sacred that when one suffers, we all suffer and when one rejoices, we all rejoice. Only in that interaction of life, compassion, and freedom can we find our divinely ordained places in God’s new creation.
In that most familiar passage in John’s Gospel—what has been called the Gospel in miniature, we also see this concern for the one and the many, the individual and the whole. God so loves the world (the whole) and whosoever (the one). Two basic truths emerge from this gospel of Jesus Christ—two basic and simple truths and yet with profound implications:
- God loves me
- God loves me no more than God loves anyone else.
And because we are all held precious in the heart of God, our identities and destinies are intertwined. Our common salvation is to be found in the community of God’s New Creation.
Even today, right now, this Redeeming Force and Radical Understanding can lead us all to freedom, community, and peace with God and each other. The one and the many, each and all enriched, loved, and affirmed in God’s Beloved Community. That is God’s dream. And that can become our reality.
May the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel redeem your past with words of truth and forgiveness.
May the Creator of the New Heaven and the New Earth guide all your tomorrows in the ways of righteousness and peace.
And may the Lord of the Eternal Now keep you in the love of Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.
I Corinthians 12:12-27
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.I Corinthians 12:12-27
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.