So in part two we looked at the idea that our primary and overarching identity is not “sinner who needs to be saved” but “beloved who belongs”, not “sinner saved by grace” but “beloved created with grace”. The danger in this idea, however, is that it removes sin from the conversation. In the name of inclusion and belonging, we can too easily start to ignore this thing called “sin”, its impact on both our own lives and the world around us, and that we even do it all. So what about sin?
First, I think it’s important to remember that we do in fact all sin, and this is not a unique idea to Christianity. In fact, some of my atheist friends robustly agree that all have sinned (though they may not choose to use that word). There are very few people and religions in this world that I’ve encountered that doubt that everybody has in some way sinned or done wrong. So, yes, all have sinned. The question is, what do we do about it, and what are its implications?
As indicated last week, I do not believe that our sin (and particularly our “original sin”) condemns us to hell and that we need atonement from God through Jesus in order to be saved from hell. Because, remember, our primary identity in God is “Beloved child”, not “condemned sinner”. Yes, we have sinned, but it does not disqualify us from belonging to God as God’s beloved child any more than the wrongs my kids do disqualify them from being my beloved child. And if there is some kind of atonement that needs to happen, it has already happened by virtue of the loving-kindness of God that is the thread running through both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. From a Christian perspective, God did not come to earth to satisfy the wrath of God, but God came to earth to satisfy and live out the love of God.
So let’s look at the primary Bible verse on these matters (cue guy with sign behind the
end zone), John 3:16. It reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV).
The traditional interpretation of this verse goes like this: We are sinners and because God is just, that sin must be atoned for or we will burn in hell in eternal death. But God loves us, so God sent God’s only son to the earth to suffer the necessary penalty for us in the person and deity of Jesus Christ. We must believe and accept this as God’s eternal truth, because salvation is only for the “believer”. In accepting that God loves us so much that God died to pay the penalty for our sins, we can then have “eternal life”, which is most commonly understood as not burning hell but going to heaven after we die.
Notice that this interpretive rhythm starts with “sinner”, but the verse itself starts with God’s love. I think that’s problematic and is where I’d like to begin reimagining sin. So let’s reframe this famous verse beginning where it begins- God’s love:
We are deeply and eternally loved by God, our creator, and because God loves us like a loving (not abusive nor neglectful) parent, God wants to assure us of God’s love for us. But we often forget (or never knew) that God loves us, which leads to seeking for love and belonging on this earth wherever and however we can find it. This leads to exploiting God, self, neighbor, and earth for our own well being. To more adequately assure us that God loves us, God comes to earth as a fully embodied human to be in a flesh-on-flesh relationship with us wherein God proclaims a message and performs acts of love and belonging, while also dismantling systems of hate and exclusion, and does so even to the point where God in the flesh is killed for it.
We sin. All of us. And this sin creates a kind of hell of earth from which we all want to be “saved”. That hell on earth is feeling alienated, excluded, hated, and rejected simply because of who we are. Therefore, God so loved the world, that God came to earth to assure us of that love and belonging to the degree that we come fully alive.
It all begins in a garden, where humanity is living in a beautiful relationship with God, self, one another, and the earth. And God says, “don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. There is a way in which I think we can say that God is saying “don’t eat the fruit of judgment- it will kill you. It will pit you against one another and alienate you.” But that fruit is tempting. We can’t resist.
We eat it, and, like Adam and Eve, we become aware of our nakedness, our truest selves and we doubt that this true naked seld is loveable. We become afraid, and we hide. In our shame of ourselves, of our bodies and our souls, we feel we have no choice but to protect ourselves, and we do so by tearing others down. We are no longer tilling and keeping a garden of life, but we are tilling and keeping our own self-preservation. So we seek power and protection in whatever ways we can. We move from living a life in communion with God, self, neighbor, and the world, to living a life where I make sure I’m ok at all times and in all places.
Sin begins in doubting God’s love for our beautiful bodies and souls, and it continues in the fracturing of relationships that happens when we seek to compensate for that lack of love.
Too often, our following of God’s commands has been communicated as an act of obedience that comes from a sense of guilty gratitude for a God who died in our place. That may not sound bad until you break it down: God doesn’t want to kill us. We don’t kill that which we love (except in cases of mercy to prevent suffering). What’s embedded in all of this is still a debt to be paid. It puts us into a sort of slave/master relationship with God, an image which (by the way) the Apostle Paul fully embraces. It’s the idea that God purchased us, and it’s in the Bible, to be sure, but this “slave/master” relationship also contradicts the loving-kindness of the “parent/child” relationship that permeates the whole story, and which I think is primary to any other relationship type we have with God.
The sin we commit, whether it is participating in or benefitting from systemic sin or personal sin, is not about disobeying rules from a master. It is about denying our own and others’ worthiness of love, leading to a breakdown in our relationship with God, self, neighbor, and the earth. When we walk away from God, we hurt God’s heart, because God wants to be with us. When we hurt our literal or metaphorical neighbors, we fracture the communion God desires that we have with one another. We hate ourselves (both body and soul), we hurt our own hearts and God’s, as God declares us beautiful and beloved just as we are. When we exploit the earth for our own benefit, we fracture the communion we God desires that we have with the earth and fail to do the job God set out for us to do.
Sin is real, but it is not a lack of obeying God’s rules. It all begins with a lack of knowledge and acceptance that we are loved. The rules God set up for us (e.g.: the 10 commandments) are not arbitrary rules from an angry God that we are to obey. They are meant to help us live into a mutually loving relationship with God so that we can be in a mutually loving relationship with ourselves, with one another, and with the earth. Sin is when we fail to do any of those. And we all do it. Everyday.
The good news is that when we really get that first part, that God deeply and eternally loves us, we can know that our “sin” never disqualifies us from God’s love and belonging. That is a fixed, eternal, and unbreakable truth. It’s a scary world out there. There is a lot of hate and a lot of fear. The antidote is not “if everybody just obeyed God’s laws, we’d be fine”. No, the antidote is “if everybody just knew how deeply and eternally loved and accepted they are, the fear and hate would go away.”
If the whole earth were 100% centered in the idea that we are deeply and eternally loved and accepted, we could live in mutually loving relationship with God, self, neighbor, and earth, and I think then we could even say that the “sin” would go away. Will we ever get there? I don’t know. But I’m sure as hell finding abundant life in trying.