Now there’s a lively topic. Over the years more than a few members of my congregation who were raised in conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches have come to me with serious questions about sin. More often than not they carry within their souls a very deep sense of guilt about their own sin and their conviction that whatever “the world” is, it is irreparably contaminated by sin. They wonder why our church doesn’t do more to emphasize the corrosiveness of sin, call worshipers to repentance of sin, warn about the eternal damnation that is the reward of sin, and publicize the living hell that non-Christians are already in and from which they have no hope of deliverance. In spite of what the far right wing of our own denomination claims, that is not the Anglican way.
Reflecting on a growing awareness of God’s grace that has been developing over two thousand years, we are awed by a universe that was created out of love, sustained for love and redeemed by love. In it we discover ourselves to be the objects of God’s love, and fallen though we are, we are God’s children yet. However, our critics and my recovering fundamentalist parishioners have a point. In pushing against the evangelical obsession with sin we have often not given it enough airtime.
What exactly is sin? The simple answer is that it is to miss the mark, but what then is the mark? In the end I think it comes down to this. Sin is anything that brings hurt into our own lives or the lives of others; it is anything that diminishes or places obstacles in the way of receiving the fullness of God’s blessings. We are all and each sinners because we all and each engage daily in that which hurts others and us. Daily we diminish or trivialize the abundance of God’s blessings poured into our lives and the lives of others. Daily we create obstacles to and new ways of avoiding those blessings. And when I speak of others I mean not only our immediate neighbors, but also society as a whole. Is some particular act a sin or not? It depends not on the act itself but on the consequences of the act for self, others and society.
Sometimes we get ourselves into situations where painful choices have to be made. Abusive marriages, betrayed relationships of every kind, even pregnancies that endanger not one life but many require decisions that cannot be made without sinning. As often as not something sinful got us into these predicaments in the first place. We are not, it seems, wholly innocent victims. There are, of course, sins of great magnitude that bring enormous waves of evil into existence, cause unspeakable hurt and reverberate for aeons around the world, perhaps even throughout the universe. I suppose we could start making lists but I’m not sure it would do much good because most lists are made up to show all the evil and sinful things that someone else has done in order for the list maker to illustrate how sinless she or he is by comparison. Ah, how we love to judge others with the eye of a damning god!
Now here is where it comes down to for Christians. In Christ Jesus God demonstrated that “the world” was not lost but saved, and that, as Paul taught, we individually are saved by grace through faith. It is a gift given by God through Christ and all anyone has to do to get it is to receive it. The act of receiving changes everything. It takes away the guilt of ulcerous burdens that eat away at flesh and soul and opens a path to new life in which the abundance of God’s blessings increasingly floods into our lives. More needs to be said, but this is enough for the moment. Think about it.