1 John 3:1-7.
Once again, did those who know go and tell those who don’t know?
OK, now to the serious business of talking about sin. You know how every time you watch a movie you can see something new or different? That happened to me this past week as I read this scripture from 1 John. It was the word “lawless” that struck me. I had to look up other biblical translations where the word “lawless” was used.
I guess I never thought that odd before now. Lawless — I think I relate that to the stories, and books, and movies about the old West where each emerging town was often described as “lawless” — without boundaries or rules and regulations. Even this example from Merriam-Webster reinforces that view: Director John “Ford moved on to the Wyatt Earp film My Darling Clementine (1946), in which a weary resignation to subdue the lawless forces of the West with civic virtue displaces the genre’s usual freewheeling sense of adventure.” AKA — lawlessness. (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lawless)
The breaking or ignoring the laws of the land can certainly lead to chaos, but I think the author in 1 John was speaking to the those who do not follow the laws of God and the chaos that can ensue from that lawlessness in not only earthly terms, but most especially spiritual terms where it’s easy to be adrift.
There is nothing simple about this subject. Used to be simple when I was growing up having been taught: “You sin, you go to hell.” Yeah, that would keep us in line, but usually not for too long. The topic of sin can make us feel ill at ease, guilty, shameful, resentful, rebellious, resigned to our sinfulness — the hell with it we might say, and just do as we please. Thoughtful self-awareness and criticism and questioning one’s behavior is difficult work. “It’s the other person’s fault. It’s the other person’s responsibility. That other person made me do it.” Sound familiar?
Over the centuries there have evolved many ways to define sin. There’s mortal sin — grave sins like murder, rape, incest, and adultery. And there’s venial sin like losing patience or picking a fight.
And there are the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. It was interesting to learn that these behaviors or habits are classified under this category of a deadly sin if they directly give birth to other immoralities.
These sins are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural faculties or passions (for example, gluttony abuses one’s desire to eat, and greed could lead to murder). This classification of seven deadly sins originated with the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, and volumes have been written on the subject. There is still debate today over Luther’s statement to “Sin Boldly”.
Over my decades in congregations it seems that the topic of sin has gone out of favor because it makes us feel bad about ourselves — laying guilt over guilt. And I can understand why so many people have left organized religion when those in leadership raise accusing fingers at other’s sins and shortcomings and don’t hold the same mirror of scrutiny to their own lives and behavior. Just think of some of the televangelists who have publicly asked for forgiveness only after being caught having multiple affairs, or accused of rape and even jailed for accounting fraud. Their motto may well have been: “Do as I say, not as I do.” We’ve all heard that the church is full of hypocrites. Well, thankfully, the church is here for all of us, because we are all in need.
Maybe you have notice that many churches today do not include a prayer of confession which practice may make us feel bad about ourselves individually and collectively — placing a burden on us. Along with the disappearance of the confession is also the disappearance, sadly, of the prayer of assurance which can lift that burden and reminded us that God loves us and calls us to be the best we can strive to be and that our sins are forgiven, and we are encouraged to “go and sin no more”, Jesus’ words. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote the book Speaking of Sin — the Lost Language of Salvation. That might make a good adult study if it hasn’t already been offered.
In reality, we all know we are both saint and sinner. Unfortunately, one is hard to live up to (and sometimes saints are hard to live with), and the other, sinner, sometimes feels like a slippery slope just waiting for us to join the ride. We are like the cartoon character who carries the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Who do we listen to? Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: “. . . the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (Christian Century; April 11, 2018)
As followers of Christ I don’t believe we are called to perfection or holiness or something equally unattainable — but we are called to strive to be all that God is calling us to be, and we are encouraged to go and sin no more. Just don’t do it. And we know that can be hard work.
A simple definition of sin that I prefer simply because it is simple, is any action or inaction on my part that causes me to feel separated from God and God’s love in my life. These actions or inactions cause me to turn my back on God. They do not cause God to turn God’s back on me. God does not shun us, but wants us whole and healthy in body and mind and spirit.
So, yes, self-reflection and awareness is important. What are those things in our own lives that keep us from a fuller relationship with God? Is there an addiction or habit we can’t seem to control? — gambling, gossiping, drugs, alcohol, sex, television, Internet access to a host of things, 24/7 news. What injustices, racist jokes or demeaning actions of others that we don’t confront? What are those things in our own lives that keep us from a fuller relationship with God? What might be our disappointments, doubts, angers, and reasons to distrust ourselves, others, God that cause us to behave in harmful ways to ourselves and others?
Here, however, is what Jesus says. The translation is from the Message: “Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior. Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.” (Matthew 7:12)
Our actions do matter. Living life as children of God does mean tension and choice about how we live — about listening to that angel or listening to that devil. In a UCC devotion this week, Jennifer Brownell used Ps 4 as her basis: “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah. Selah is a word we see in the psalms — a musical note to pause before doing anything else. Just pause. Just selah for a moment and perhaps that moment can move us from harm to blessing. As children of God it’s about intentionally living out Jesus’ commandment. We want respect — we treat others with respect. We want to be visible — treat others so they know you see them. Want to be loved — love others. We don’t necessarily have to save the world to be the person God calls us to be, but where we stand in time and place and community our actions or inactions are important.”
I like what Peter Marty wrote in a recent issue of the Christian Century (April 11, 2018): “Self-criticism can be tough to engage. Admitting individual wrong is hard. We fall in love with our own moral positions. When I contemplate the ministry of Jesus, it strikes me that he seems less interested in taking the right stand on different issues than in standing in the right place. Try reading the Gospels sometime with an eye toward where Jesus physically positions himself. It appears that he stands between the woman accused of adultery and the scribes and Pharisees ready to stone her. He threads his way through a crowd to stand at the bedside of Simon’s mother-in-law. He goes into a kitchen in Cana to chat with the servers about a wine problem. … Doing the right thing at the right time requires that we position ourselves in the right place.”
In spite of all this sin talk is the good news of marvelous love extended to us by God. We are called children of God by God! And that is really who we are. We are what God declares us to be — God’s children.
One commentary noted that “We are God’s children not by our choice or by our accomplishment, but by God’s love. God’s grace has a “transformative effect in the present for those who are God’s children.” (Peterson workingpreacher.com) And that transformative effect can compel us to live life as God calls us to be — fully, joyfully, thankfully engaged. (Brian Peterson; workingpreacher.com; 4-29-12)
Today we have been jolted by three deaths within this community of faith and we realize how fragile life is. We grieve and mourn with each family and are assured by these words from Scripture and the reality of our own lives, that God loves us in our living and in our dying. We are children of God and God loves us and walks with us to the mountaintop as well as through the valley of the shadow of death. God loves us.
Earlier this week, Scott asked me about today’s sermon topic so he could choose music. “Sin,” I said. “Hmmmm.” He chose “Blessed Assurance” as the Prelude. Such a fitting piece of music. And fitting words as this reflection comes to an end. It is blessed assurance to know that God loves us. God’s love knows no bounds. We go into the word with that blessed assurance. Go and share that good news. Alleluia and amen.