Big Questions: Sin
Genesis 3, Romans 7 & 8
Since Christmas we have been journeying together through the gospel of Mark. Last week on Easter Sunday we pretty much wrapped up Mark’s version of the Jesus story. The next thing that happens in the timeline of Jesus’ followers is Jesus’ return to heaven, and then Pentecost. But Pentecost isn’t for another six weeks. So we are going to take a little break from the timeline, and instead dig into the topic of hope. In order to get there we have to tackle some other big topics. In the next six weeks we are going to talk about sin, death, resurrection, eternal life, love and trust. These are some of the foundational concepts in Christian theology and a good understanding of them is going to help us as we work on the spiritual discipline of hope. As we discussed during Advent, hope is work. It’s not a warm fuzzy emotion that just happens to us. It’s something that we can and must cultivate in ourselves.
As we all know, hardly anyone in the world remembers the last global pandemic. We have never before faced anything like what we are facing now. It’s causing us to ask some hard questions of ourselves and of God. Our theology is only useful if it speaks to the situation we find ourselves in. It has to help us make sense of what’s happening now. Although there are some basic capital-T truths about God, our understanding of God and our relationship with God adapts to fit our needs. So it’s worth going back to some of our foundational Christian ideas to see so they can help us engage with the questions we are asking now.
In the ancient Afro-Asiatic world, in the time and place where Jesus lived, people were asking questions about death. That’s what their theology needed to address. In Europe in the middle ages, the questions were about legal guilt and innocence. And so they read and interpreted the Bible in ways that addressed the question of who is guilty. In our culture, our questions are about suffering. We need the gospel to speak not simply to our own personal suffering, but to the larger suffering of the world. Does this faith tradition, the inheritance of Jesus, have anything substantial to say about suffering? Because as we look at all that has happened in the last century, and all that is happening right now, our instinctive reaction is “What the heck is going on here?! This world is really screwed up!”
In order to engage with that question, to engage with the problem of suffering and move towards hope, we have to talk about sin. Because sin is the concept that Christians have always used to talk about what’s wrong with the world.
We need to begin by remembering that our story doesn’t start with sin. Our story starts with goodness. A good God speaks a good creation into existence, including good people. We have to ground ourselves in goodness or the rest of the story doesn’t make any sense. Sin is a distortion. The very fact that we ask the question, “What’s wrong here?” is evidence that we know things are not the way they are supposed to be. If the world and people had been created bad, we wouldn’t be surprised or disturbed by anything that happens. Our instincts, our spirits, testify to the fact that this world and all its inhabitants are designed for goodness, for wholeness, for flourishing. So what happened? Well, the book of Genesis tells a story of two humans who were tricked into believing a lie. Let me read it to you. This is from Genesis chapter 3:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Did you hear the lie? The lie of the serpent, the doubt it planted in the mind of humanity, is that God is holding out on us, that there is something we need—the knowledge of good and evil—and that God doesn’t want us to have it. The lie is that God is not trustworthy and we need to watch out for our own interests. And in doing so, we get a lot more than we bargained for. Along with the knowledge of good and evil come two things: shame and fear. The humans hide because they are ashamed and afraid.
Whether you think this story happened exactly this way, or whether you recognize that this story continues to happen in each of us, it’s the same. The root of what’s wrong is that we believe the lie that we can’t trust God and need to make things happen for ourselves. That results in shame and fear, two things that we are not designed for, that God does not want for us. Shame and fear are distortions of the goodness that God intended for us to experience, and any time we feel them, it’s a cue for us that something is not as it should be.
Now of course this story doesn’t answer all our questions about sin and evil. Like, why is there a bad talking snake in God’s perfect garden in the first place? We don’t know. Apparently it doesn’t matter, or the Bible would include that information. In our tradition this is the origin story of sin, which is the distortion of what God intended for the world. As a result of human’s lack of trust in God, the whole system falls apart. The distortion of sin, this virus of sin, infects all of creation. It’s so much bigger than just our individual actions, although of course it includes those. It’s not just the things that we do that are against God’s design for us, it’s the fact that we can’t help doing things that are against God’s design for us. Sin is not the bad things we do; sin is the reason we do bad things. Sin is a force in itself. It is so powerful that we can’t overcome it on our own. No matter how much good we do as individuals, we can’t fix the distorition, we can’t cure the virus. Someone else is going to have to intervene. And that’s what Jesus does.
If the original lie is that God is not trustworthy and that God is holding out on us, Jesus comes to prove that wrong. His whole life was motivated by love for us. He showed us in the flesh, in human form, in earthly life, that God is entirely trustworthy. And in Jesus’ sacrificial love that led him to the cross, he showed us that God is most certainly not holding out on us, that in fact God holds nothing back from us. The virus of sin comes from our pathological need to protect our own interests, and sin’s vaccine is Jesus’ willingness give up his own interests. The virus of sin is still loose in the world but the vaccine Jesus provides means we don’t have to be controlled by sin anymore.
We don’t have to be controlled by shame anymore. Remember that when the first people stopped trusting God they experienced a distortion of who and what they were created to be. They felt shame and fear, and neither of those are useful emotions. Those don’t help us at all. They don’t get us anywhere.
Researcher Brene Brown says there’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is the discomfort we feel when we realize that we have done something that is not in line with our values, that we’ve done something we really didn’t want to do. A healthy feeling of guilt motivates us not to do that thing again.
Shame, on the other hand, she says is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” That’s exactly what happened in the story. The shame that humans felt made them hide from God, made them believe that they were unworthy of connecting with God. But God still wanted to connect with them. God was still seeking them out, just as God had before they believed the lie and stopped trusting God. God’s love for them had not changed. They were just afraid that it had.
It’s still the same. The virus of sin fills us with shame and makes us think that we aren’t worthy of connection with God. But that’s still a lie. Jesus came and willingly took on the worst that sin could dish out, the worst that humanity could do, he took it all to prove to us that no matter what we come up with, God still loves us and longs to connect with us. Our recognition of Jesus’ sacrifice is the treatment for the symptom called shame that we feel as a result of the virus of sin. Jesus himself says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And in the book of Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that even though we are sinners, Christ died for us.
Which is why we should never again put up with feeling that symptom called shame. Are we sinners? Yes we are. Do we miss the mark and fall short of the best that God intends for us? Every single day. But that is not an indictment of our character, it doesn’t lessen who we are in the sight of God or anyone else. We have received our treatment for shame and our vaccination against sin. So we simply admit our failures, feel the healthy guilt that reminds us we don’t want to do THAT again, and move on to the next good thing that God is calling us to do.
At the end of Romans chapter 7 the apostle Paul describes the agonizing battle within us that sin causes and ends by saying, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God it has been done through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then chapter 8 begins with the glorious assertion, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus for the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
So when we ask, “What’s wrong with the world? Why do terrible things happen?” the Christian answer is sin. The virus of sin has infected everything in the world. We shouldn’t expect perfect health when a virus is raging. We shouldn’t be surprised that the world is a mess because the effects of sin are everywhere. But we don’t need to feel ashamed of our part in it or afraid of the effects of sin, because Jesus has provided a vaccine. And once a vaccine has been developed, the virus is essentially beaten. It may take a while for the vaccine to reach everywhere, but it will be eradicated. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the vaccine for sin. Sin is already beaten even though we still see its effects in the world. Eventually the vaccine of Jesus will spread through all of creation and sin will be eradicated. And when THAT day comes, we will experience a new creation and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
This is why we can have hope even in the midst of really awful situations. Even as we see the results of sin ravaging our lives, our relationships, our communities, and the creation itself, we know that in reality sin has already been beaten. We keep working for justice and peace, treating every symptom of sin that we find. We grieve all the losses, every time sin gets the upper hand, but we don’t grieve as those who have no hope. We keep looking toward the future. Jesus has already conquered sin, and its symptoms of shame and fear. We have been vaccinated against sin and are now on the frontline of God’s work. We may not see the new creation in our lifetime, and we might even lose our own lives in this fight against sin. But that would put us in the same company as Jesus, which would be an honor. God is trustworthy. God is holding nothing back from us. We have every reason to be hopeful, because sin does not get the last word. Amen.