Romans 7: 14-25
Second Sunday of Lent (B), March 1, 2015
About 40 years ago, the eminent psychologist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Happened to Sin? He argued that whereas an earlier generation had a clear understanding of sin, the present generation was in danger of losing all sense of sin. In this volume he argued that over time we excused our actions as individuals by psychologizing them. We are victims of social pathologies, dysfunctional families, social programming, and cultural conditioning– giving us helpful insights into the dynamics of human behavior–but ultimately never fixing blame on individual choices and motivations that violate a moral code. But we know instinctively that there are deep flaws in the human species that can’t be explained away by the social sciences.
People titter when they talk about sin and it’s usually sexualized. Living in sin. Cologne called “Sinsational.” Chocolate as sinfully delicious. It’s often seen as “pleasurable naughtiness,” or indulgence. Rarely, if ever, does a public official when confessing to some act of malfeasance say, “What I did was sinful. I sinned against my conscience, the public trust, those who trusted me and my God.” But years after Dr. Menninger’s death, his question still remains: Whatever Happened to Sin? Is the concept dated, irrelevant, misunderstood, and embarrassing? A significant chapter in the Christian story and during the Lenten season is wrestling with and overcoming sin. That is the problematic for Christianity: how can a broken, selfish, and sinful humanity find peace with a Holy God? Why is the world such a mess?
Let’s look first at the range of definitions of sin found in the Bible. For such a small word, it’s packed with a lot of meaning. In the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, we say “forgive us our debts,” not only because we are indebted to God for the life, grace, and love we freely receive, but also we are in debt to those we have treated poorly or to those we have cheated. Another version is “forgive us our trespasses,” which means a boundary we have crossed. There are “sins of commission,” things we do, and “sins of omission” things we have not done that we ought to have done. The Bible describes sin as the breaking, or transgression, of God’s law (“Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness,” 1 John 3:4). It is also defined as disobedience or rebellion against God (“Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD,” Deuteronomy 9:7), as well as independence from God.
The original translation of sin was “to miss the mark.” When an archer shot an arrow at a target, the distance between where the arrow landed and the bull’s eye was called sin. So if the mark is “you shall not steal,” and you steal, you have missed the mark. If the mark is “Bear with each other and forgive one another” (Col. 3:13) and you grumble, gossip and are resentful towards someone you miss the mark.
But that sounds rather abstract, doesn’t it? We live in a world where we are acutely aware of sin whether our own or others, even if we don’t call it that. Francis Spufford, a wickedly iconoclastic and funny British pundit, wrote a marvelous book called Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprisingly emotional sense. This former atheist describes sin as “The human propensity to foul things up.” He uses more colorful language, but this is a “G-rated” worship service. The short hand he uses for this state of affairs is HPtFtU. Spufford first points to those classic examples of adult failure: “when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when a relationship fades away with a child seen only on Saturdays, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream,” p. 28.
But, he continues, it need not be so dramatic. It’s often more subtle.
“You’re lying in the bath and you notice that you’re thirty-nine and that they way you’re living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted; yet you got here by choice…And as the water cools…you glimpse an unflattering vision of yourself as a being whose wants make no sense, don’t harmonize: whose desire, deep down, are discordantly arranged…The HPtFtU dawns on you,” p. 28
This was Paul’s dilemma and struggle in our passage today.
For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions… I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do well, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up.
So Paul says he can’t understand himself–this civil war within him, this battle between his will and his actions. He too knows the HPtFtU.
But let’s take a moment to turn the corner and look at sin from a different angle. Instead of looking at what God is against, let’s look at what God is for. The Biblical prophets knew that sin had a thousand faces and how many ways human life can go wrong. They railed against this because they knew how many ways human life could go right. They dreamed of a new age where human crookedness would be straightened out. The foolish would be made wise and the wise humble. The deserts would blossom, the rivers would run with Chardonnay, tears would be wiped away, and people could go to sleep at night without guns in their night stand. The poor would find justice and not mere compensation. Their lives would be fruitful and fair. Wolves and lambs would lie down together. All humans would be knit together and in harmony with nature. All would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.
This is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. This is God’s dream for the world. The word means “peace,” but it means much more. It carries the idea of health, wholeness and flourishing; of living in abundance. Land was capital in ancient Israel and part of flourishing meant having a sufficient plot of land upon which to farm, live, raise livestock and enjoy the fruit of your labor. Scratching out a living from the ground was never God’s intent. In this world the prophets described God would preside in the unspeakable beauty that all human beings long for and be drawn to instinctively to the mystery of God’s holiness which inspires all worship. In other words, this is the way things are supposed to be, as theologian Neil Plantinga puts it.
This is why God is opposed to sin. God is opposed to all that ruins shalom. God is opposed to anything that crushes human dignity, savages human relationships, and shatters human souls. God opposes unjust human structures that jail the innocent, pollute the land, make races into castes, laws that permit the strong to crush the weak, and indifference toward enriching human life. And God is opposed to the sin that ruins us.
What we see when we look around us is “not the way it’s supposed to be.” Fathers are not supposed to abuse their children. Corporations are not supposed to let toxic chemicals leech into water supplies. Politicians are not supposed to take bribes to do the bidding of a self-interested party. Adult children are not supposed to let their aging parents molder in a decrepit nursing home and surreptitiously steal their money. Cliques of cool kids are not to bully not cool kids to the brink of suicide. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!
Richard Lischer, professor of preaching at Duke, tells the story of a young soldier on the Western front during the first world war, in the hell of the trenches, with shells exploding all around him and surrounded by the piled-up bodies of the fallen in a monstrous array, and he turns to a fellow soldier and says, “We weren’t meant for this”. I think this is a phrase that should echo in our minds and in our hearts as we survey the geography of our 21st century world. Every time we see a homeless person sleeping in a doorway: we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of malaria, a preventable disease: we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity when we torture and maim one another or a mad dictator mowing down his people before us in the paraded media: we were not meant for this.
Every time church folk do cruel and unusual things to one another: we were not meant for this. I’d like to think that some thought like that that motivated Jesus to heal that poor demoniac and every other poor person whose life was disfigured by disease or disability or injustice: we were not meant for this!
Sin is a parasite. Sin and evil are not anything in themselves but that they corrupt the good. Rot in a tree would not exist unless it destroyed healthy heartwood. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. I would propose that most of the evil in this world is perpetrated by other human beings. Yes, there are natural disasters but even there we build our homes so close to rivers that we destroy the flood plains and the water has no place to go but into our basements. With every good intention we send food to a third world nation only to have a dictator sell it to buy weapons. Thousands of German Lutheran’s turned over their Jewish neighbors to Hitler and his thugs. A mother spreads nasty rumors about a cheerleader who rivals her daughter for prominence. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Most importantly: sin is not just a moral problem; it is a spiritual problem. When David confessed his adultery with Bathsheba and his consequent murder of her husband to cover it up, he said to God, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51: 1-4). Sin breaks covenant with God. Sin smears a relationship with God. Sin grieves the heart of our Divine parent and benefactor. Sin is the betrayal of the partner to whom we are joined by a holy bond. We are blameworthy. We are guilty. Sin is a personal affront to a personal God.
So what do we do with this? Paul said that he couldn’t understand him¬self–this civil war within him, this battle between his will and his actions. I know it’s my story and I’ll bet it’s yours as well. He writes:
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
In the next chapter, Romans 8, he also revealed his momentous, liberating discovery that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…for God has done what the law…could not do…” No condemnation.
We’re free. No condemnation, for God has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves–namely, to take all the sin, suffering, death and evil of this world into and upon the Divine heart, to bear the consequences rejected love, and to enable us to stand before a just and holy God. We stand naked, stripped of all delusion and pretension, mask ripped off, standing before the Lord of all life and there is for you—wretched and conflicted one’s that we are and surprise!–no condemnation. No condemnation.