(This is the first sermon in a series of three Lenten sermons on the concept of sin. The second sermon is based on Romans 8:12-17 and is entitled “Scared to Death.” The last sermon in the series is based on I Corinthians 12:12-27; John 3:16-17 and has the title “The One and the Many.”)
What do you think (and more importantly, what do you feel) when you hear words like “sin/original sin/the demonic?” In this three-sermon series, I want us to undergo a serious, open-minded examination of these terms in light of Scripture and our common experience.
Over the centuries, the church has always had a dual focus in its understanding of sin: one personal and the other impersonal. Sin as personal focuses on a violation of relationships resulting in a state of our alienation from God, nature, others, and self. It is turning away from the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourself. Much preaching and prayer has focused on personal sin. Although I would not ever suggest that we ignore the destruction and pain that comes from sin that is personal in nature, I do believe that this emphasis has often obscured the equally destructive and painful results of “impersonal sin.”
So, what do we mean by impersonal sin? At some point in life, all of us have a sense that we have been born into a condition of alienation—the feeling that sin has preceded us and is not just something we have created by ourselves. The church has defined this experience of sin as the demonic and as original sin. These terms have been variously interpreted over the centuries, but the basic thrust is this: powers of destruction originate prior to our births, and these powers can and do overwhelm us, dragging us down into the condition of alienation which shows itself in our personal sin. Thus, the past becomes the conveyer—the carrier of “original sin” and “the demonic.”
For example, I was born in the deep South of the United States. I was not born prejudiced or racist. I did not come out of the womb a bigot. I was not born with sin, but I was born into a culture poisoned by the ancient sin of racism. The conditions of that racism were not the result of a single person, but stemmed from a combination of many forces, some dating from the very distant past which contributed to a destructive and oppressive environment.
The temptation was to conform to the nature of the culture and the times. By such accommodation, whites found they could belong to a community and system which would allow them to get ahead in society. Many southern politicians achieved high office by pandering to the base desires, fears, and prejudices of white majorities.
So, what happened to me in this environment? The past which at first was the situation I was thrown into without my consent entered into me. It became woven into the gradual formation of my being. And for me, the sin of it all occurred when I said “Yes” to that past—when I chose to embrace that evil which preceded me and was bigger than I was. Once I said “Yes,” I became responsible for perpetuating the past. I become not only a victim of that past—I also became a preserver and nurturer of that evil. I become guilty of sin. I became a sinner.
When I say “Yes” to that evil, I sin against myself as that sin which preceded me and was external to me now becomes woven into my life. And each and every time I acquiesce to that sin, the evil is strengthened until it becomes habitual and an inseparable part of who I am. Once that happens, the capacity to resist such sin becomes smaller and weaker, and every day and every decision of the future must reckon with my assent to evil. (It wasn’t until college when a couple of profs jerked some sense into me that I BEGAN my journey out of racism.)
Because we live in a web of relationships, when we say “Yes” to the demonic past, we also sin against others and God. For some people, we become an influence toward and seductive model of such evil, thus increasing the powers of the demonic and scarring the very souls of others. Parents who practice racism around their children are grievously guilty of passing on such a monstrous heritage. But most tragically, we bring harm to others as they become the recipients of the oppressive and suffering stemming from our intentional participation in this evil. Sin always has a rebounding effect. We never ever sin just to ourselves. Four hundred years of racism in this country is undeniable proof of the systemic and horrendous perpetuity of this “original sin” in America. All have suffered from this staining and enduring tragedy, but there should be no doubt that those who have suffered the most are those who have been scapegoated, denigrated, and subjected to all kinds of unimaginable forms of torture and suffering.
One of the great insights of Paul was his understanding that sin imprisons humans. (Thus, the idea of “demonic possession” takes on a new and more relevant meaning when we understand “possession” as a type of imprisonment.) Sin usually imprisons us in a particular form of the past. The past itself is not all evil. God was there as well as faithful saints. Sin occurs when we allow those elements, structures, and forms of the past which do not work for the good of all to become the determining factors of our lives and our world—when we become blind and deaf to the alternatives which were there but have been overwhelmed and shouted down in our memories and consciences by that demonic dimension. And so. the demonic consumes the past, dominates the present, and denies us any future except its own perpetuation. And it is this experience that led the church to its doctrine of “original sin”–the realization that what was done in the past has an awesome effect upon the present as it calls for a repetition and multiplication of itself both now and in the future.
Thus, sin is real, serious, deadly, and beyond our means to escape. Years ago, I remember Mother Teresa being asked if she feared anything. Her response was, “The only thing I fear is sin.” For some time, many Christians in this culture have been reluctant to talk about sin. Such talk and consideration were not considered appropriate and helpful in our highly individualistic culture. The tragic and violent resurgence of racism in the last few years reminds us that sin is real and the sufferings resulting from sin are catastrophic. We have been engaged in our own American holocaust for over four hundred years. And like that ancient symbol of the dragon who continues to reemerge and to “be born again and again” just when people thought such a destructive force had been abolished, so sins like racism continue to raise their ugly and sinister heads time and time again—even in our so-called sophisticated, postmodern American society.
But Paul says in our passage that there is Good News: God’s gift of grace is stronger and greater than the power of our sin—even sin which has been compounded, multiplied, and entrenched within the roots of our souls and within the fabric of our society. Through God’s love shown in Christ, God offers us just what we need: a new life with the ability to wipe the slate clean and begin again. Although many would never know it from the recalcitrance and “homesteading” of the church which has plagued our history, the slogan of the Bible is “new.” The Scriptures talk about a new covenant, new wine, new wineskins, a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, a new heart, a new age, and a new creation. God proclaims, “Behold, I make all things new!” (Revelation 21:5)
In Christ, God approaches us with the opportunity to shake loose the destructive elements of the past and to live out of this new age. She invites us to identify not with the old Adam of the past but with the New Adam of the present and of God’s future. With Christ, we are to die to the old and to rise to walk in the newness of life.
And yes, this newness is a gift. We do not have to earn this new quality of life. In fact, we could never earn or achieve this new beginning ourselves. What is required of us is our acceptance of this new reality in Christ and our turning from conformity with the past to the transformation made possible in the present and future moments of our lives. In fellowship with Christ (and such fellowship includes a faithful following), we are empowered from beyond with an eternal strength, an eternal vision, and an eternal love as our sin disappears under an avalanche of grace. And all this is possible because God’s grace is more powerful than our sin; because God’s strength precedes our weakness; because God’s dream for us and creation is grounded in eternity; and because God’s love alone possesses tomorrow.
But at this point in our discussion, we must be very careful. Too often salvation is presented as God’s gift to us with the assumption that all we have to do is say “Yes” to that offer. As one minister put it, “More is required of us than a monosyllabic grunt of assent.” According to the Gospel of Mark, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth as he began his ministry were these: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand (that is the grace); repent and believe/trust the gospel” (that is our response). All through his ministry, Jesus offered people God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. In his teachings, God seeks us out for healing and salvation, not for judgment and condemnation. However, Jesus never compromised the cost of that healing and salvation on our part. Repentance was required not as a tit-for-tat response on our part. Repentance was required for grace to do its work in our lives. This basic turning and radical transformation of our hearts and minds represent our willingness to allow God’s grace to make us whole. Salvation doesn’t just automatically happen. Baptism and that monosyllabic grunt of assent when we make our confessions of faith are symbolic gestures of an inner transformation which results when we open ourselves to God’s love and allow that love to bring about a new creation. It is the interplay of grace and repentance that brings about our salvation and healing. God’s grace is the initial and primary component, but our response is necessary for such grace to become effective in our lives and in our world. Paul expresses this interplay when he talks about “working out our salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It’s not either/or but both/and.
In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works; which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Once again, we see that grace is primary—but it is grace through faith which brings about salvation. The word faith in this passage comes from the same root at the word “believe/trust” in Mark 1. Its basic meaning is trust and not intellectual belief. Trust involves risk, allegiance, relationship, and commitment. That root word also implies faithfulness and fidelity. Jesus was not asking people to believe something just on an intellectual basis. He was asking people to trust God’s love and grace and out of that trusting relationship to live a new life and to become a new person. He assumed that if people trusted God’s presence in him and this Kingdom bursting onto the stage of history, they would live and be differently. We can’t understand any of his teachings (especially the Sermon on the Mount) without realizing that he called for a radical response on our part to God’s grace that was present in him and the way of life which characterized the Kingdom of God and its justice.
The story of Zacchaeus is a good example of this interplay of God’s grace and our response. Jesus singles out this tax collector for grace as he dines with him and loves him. But it is not until Zacchaeus repents/responds that Jesus can say, “Today, salvation has come to this household, since he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” Zacchaeus’ repentance was demonstrated when he said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything (which he had certainly done as a crooked tax collector), I restore fourfold.” I’m not saying that Zacchaeus had to do these things “to be saved.” I’m saying that by doing these things, he was responding to the grace God had offered out of a heart filled with joy and gratitude. But more important, his heart had been changed.
Now, what does all this have to do with past sin which poisons lives and cultures? How, for example, does it relate to racism, the “original sin of America” which is raising its ugly head once again in our day? How can people claim they have been “saved” and at the same time intentionally, perpetually, and cruelly remain racist? In the words of I John, we cannot love God whom we have not seen unless we love our brothers and sisters whom we can see. If God’s grace doesn’t change our hearts, then God’s grace has not been received by us. Granted, such transformation is a process. That new creation doesn’t just automatically happen in its complete form for most of us. We grow into our salvation as we are “transformed from one degree of glory into another in the likeness of Jesus.” But as Jesus himself said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The same Jesus who offers God’s gift of grace also demands that we take up our cross and follow him. The cross we take up is the price we pay by being faithful to the ways of God revealed in Christ. The primary characteristic of God according to Jesus is compassion. There is no compassion in racism. If we are not compassionate, we know nothing of the God we claim has saved us. And if we choose not to follow him, we lose our very selves/souls. (Mark 8:34-38) It is the height of presumption and hypocrisy to claim we are saved when our lives demonstrate nothing of the love, grace, and compassion of God.
So, what (in a nutshell) is our passage saying? Sin is powerful, deadly, and diabolically addictive. It will, unchecked, consume our past, present, and future. It will consume us. But such sin need not have the last word. By turning to Jesus as both Redeemer and Example, we can break the chains of the past as we let him redeem that past with alternatives which were always there and even more importantly, usher in a present and a future full of possibilities never dreamt of but which are real because they blossom from the heart of God
All of this, of course, depends on that first turning of conversion (which means transformation) and of being “born again.” But it also depends on our allowing God to shatter the destructive influences of the past and to provide a better way as we grow in grace. Former U S Representative Brooks Hayes was once asked by a college student if he had been born again. His response was, “Yes, my friend. I’ve been born again—and again—and again.”
Whether we will be born again/saved/redeemed again and again and again depends on whether we are willing to avail ourselves of the power of God in Christ–a power which can shatter the grip of sin and move us on into an authentic newness of life. And, my friends, it’s all a matter of choice.
Communion Meditation: The question “Have you been born again?” refers to that initial turning and important decision to trust the grace of God and to orient one’s life according to the pattern of Jesus. Baptism is the symbol of that initial turning and primary decision to trust and follow. In baptism we die with Christ to the old as we slough off the sin and enslavement of the past, and we rise with Christ to walk in the newness of life as we allow God to grace us with a new beginning.
The question “Have you been born again and again and again?” refers to that continual turning—that lifelong process of discovering the depths of God’s love and the nature of that change and conversion into the likeness of Jesus. In a powerful way, communion can be the symbolic expression of that continual turning and process of faithful conversion. With the bread and the wine representing the body and blood of Christ, we are reminded of God’s grace poured out for us. And we are invited week by week to participate in the death of Christ as the old nature bit by bit loses its remaining grip on our souls. And as we drink the wine of celebration symbolizing God’s new covenant with us, we are invited to reexperience that newness—the miraculous fresh beginnings God’s grace and forgiveness and our response can always bring.
As we come to this Table of God’s new covenant in Christ, may we allow God to birth us anew as we come one step closer to the likeness of Jesus.
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?NRS