The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Chester Presbyterian Church
April 30, 2006
1 John 1:8-10
1 John 3:1-7
Today’s texts are two of the truest statements in the Bible. Taken individually they could almost be seen as a summary of the Gospel. All of us are in need of God’s forgiveness and if we remain in our sin we can not know and experience God’s love. Sounds simple enough, but they also seem to represent a double standard. You have to be without sin to know and experience God, but all of us sin so we can not know God. The simple answer to this problem is, of course, that faith in Christ cleanses us from our sins when we confess them. But what about the sins we will commit today, tomorrow, and the next day? Can any of us really say that we will not sin?
Can we who are human, and imperfect, and wired for self preservation really say that we are going to put the interests of other people before our own and treat our neighbors as good as we do ourselves... to make sure that everyone has a home as nice as ours... that every person has the same health care options as our own children... to research the companies we hold stock in and those that make our watches, shoes, and clothes and to refuse to support companies that use child labor and who pay their workers less than a living wage?
My point here is not to make us all feel bad, but to acknowledge what Paul said in Romans 3:23 “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In other words, we are all in this together, and no one is above reproach. Of course, the final word on sin is that we are forgiven through Christ. Unfortunately, this message of hope has often been put to other uses. Here’s how it looks in some circles of Christian faith.
We all sin, and those who sin can not know God. If Christ is in you... a phrase I have always found a little ambiguous given that our text says “if we abide in Christ” and not the other way around... if Christ is in you, you can be forgiven and you will not sin. We are, however, imperfect and at some point we all sin. Churches through the centuries have used this shell game of faith (both intentionally and unintentionally) to make people feel like they can be sure of salvation, but they might not actually be saved. It’s the kind of thing the Reformers rebelled against when they challenged the Roman Catholic Church over the buying and selling of indulgences in order to get a loved one into heaven.
Today it can be seen in non-denominational circles and some fundamentalist congregations as the “ABC’s” of faith. All you need to do is Accept, Believe, and Confess, and when it turns out that something you think, feel, or do is not in line with their interpretation of scripture (like going through a divorce, having a different position on a social issue, or some actual moral failure like drinking or cheating on a test or your taxes), then you must not have done one of those well enough. Now although this may resonate with the idea that we are responsible for our actions and that we can determine our own destiny, it is not really a very “Reformed” perspective and it does more to conform us by culture than to transform us by the Spirit (Romans 12:2). I’m not saying that we should not Accept, Believe, and Confess in the Lordship of Christ and our need for forgiveness. I am saying that redemption does not depend on giving the right answer or doing or saying certain things. Staying with the ABC’s alone reminds me of a game called “You can’t win” that a couple of morning radio DJ’s used to play on a station in Atlanta.
People would call in and be subjected to a series of questions like, “What is the capitol of Paraguay?” that got harder and harder until they were disqualified, usually by the third question. What I could never understand is why people kept calling! I guess its human nature to want something we can not have. A relationship with God is not that way. It is not tenuous or fragile. God is not turning from us every time we turn from our neighbor or give a wrong answer on a quiz. God is not like a parent who is sometimes too busy to deal with us or who sometimes gets too frustrated to talk to us. There is no question about God’s love or accessibility. The question is about sin. What is it? How does it separate us from God? Can we be sinless? Though I’ve been asked to call for a show of hands to see who here is sinless, I will spare us that for now.
Instead I want you to think about how you might answer the question, “What does it mean to sin?” if asked by a five year old. Were I a bettin’ man I would wager that the many of us thought of actions, and for a five old that would be OK. But for a youth learning to claim faith in Christ or an adult who is trying to live by Biblical principles in a world that serves its own needs, that’s not enough.
So here’s the deal. Christ frees us from mortal sin and from the power of sinful actions. That means that for those of us who believe in Jesus as the one through whom God was revealed to the world, we know that we will live forever in God’s presence. It also means that even though we still make mistakes, our natural disposition is to try to do better when those mistakes are called to our attention. And even when we don’t, those things are not counted against us. We believe that God takes responsibility for us in Christ, and though we are still responsible... our salvation ultimately does not depend on our actions but on God’s. That means that everything we do is motivated by and responding to God’s action on our behalf.
Now, that is the “Reformed position” in case you were curious, but we still haven’t dealt with the fact that this text says, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Nor have we really figured out the disconnect between this passage and the fact that “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves.” In order to do that we need to consider the idea of sin in light of the whole Biblical story of love and redemption. Two particular places where scripture offers insight into scripture can be found in the examples of Cain and Jesus.
In the story of Cain, the first brother murders his own brother because God prefers his brother’s offering. The thing that I find most interesting about this story is the word God uses to caution him before the act takes place. God says to Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” And here’s where it gets really fun! The Hebrew word for sin is Ar-ar. It is literally taken from the sound of a wild animal such as a panther. God tells Cain, “Watch out, son. That thing will bite you unless you get control of it.” Cain obviously failed. He killed his brother (Genesis 4:7).
To see how we might live with this beast I call on the example of Christ given me by the Rev. David Ealy, an African American pastor and dear friend. One of David’s favorite examples of the question of sin and righteousness is not in the passages that talk about the sinlessness of Christ, but rather one in which Jesus shows us how to recognize when we are not acting in response to grace and how to correct our course on the way. It is the story of an unknown Syrophenecian woman. This woman is not a Jew and he lets her know in no uncertain terms that he is not here for her when she asks him to heal her daughter and he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here Jesus is making a claim that she is not worthy of healing because of her race. Wow! Jesus making racial slurs, calling her a dog! Who knew. But that’s not where it stops. When she says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus realizes that this is a person who gets it. She understands who he is and what he is about even better than he does, and for that her daughter is healed (Mark 7:24-30).
What I am getting at with these two stories is that sin is not simply a set of things to do or not to do. It is an orientation. Sin is acting like we are the ones who determine our course rather than seeking for God to guide it. If Jesus had kept the course of saying, “I am not for you.” Then he would have sinned. But being the embodiment of God’s will, such as he was, he could not turn from her, having been corrected, because it is God’s character to recognize those who suffer and call out for God’s name. Because she recognized the one true God, Jesus did not turn from her need. He followed God’s will. He did not sin because he allowed his relationship with this woman in need to correct his actions. And because we were made for relationships and called into covenant community, the place where we are devoured by sin or given the information needed to master it is often one in the same – the church of Jesus Christ. Of course it doesn’t stop there. All of our relationships offer the opportunity to know God or to deny Christ as Peter did.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the true saints of the modern era of Christianity, and I think his thoughts on this topic are the one’s I like the best. He wrote prolifically while Nazi’s ruled Germany and died in a concentration camp. Concerning sin and faith, Bonhoeffer interpreted these things as both corporate and individual. For him “the individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality, and the ‘social spirit’ becomes real only in individual embodiment.” In other words, each of us are who we are because of the community we are a part of. At the same time the community isn’t some vague concept, but an expression of all of us together that can only be seen in each one of us (1).
So sin and faith are not simply individual, they affect everyone. What that means, in light of our text, is that everyone has individual relationships that are broken (or at least a little cracked). It means that our relationship as a community of faith with a world filled with poverty and heart ache is not what it could be. And it means that if we want to know God’s presence, the broken places are both the things that separate us from knowing and experiencing God’s love and also the places to start looking for it.
So rest assured, we are all accounted for through Christ! If someone asks you to raise your hand if you are without sin, you may comfortably do so. This is not an “either/or” thing. It is a “both/and.” Our eternal salvation is set, and God has taken control of sin. All we have to do now is work out the salvation we need today, tomorrow, and the next day by seeing others as equals, bringing them into community, and bringing healing not just to the ones we think are God’s children but everyone, especially those we do not want to be involved with, knowing that they are God’s children too, and that in their healing we can find our own. So let us open ourselves to God’s presence through the relationships we share. Let us be formed and reformed by God’s Spirit and to God’s glory. Amen.
Additional Resources for Further Study
Zach’s conversation with Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) can be found at http://daio.typepad.com/daio/.