Sin. It’s one of those words that those of us who might like to call ourselves “progressive Christians” don’t like to talk about too much. The message of Jesus is about love, we say, not sin. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the spectrum say it’s all about sin and avoiding sin like the plague.
The word itself and the concept it represents are extremely controversial in both religious and non religious circles. Can you really be sinning if you don’t subscribe to a particular religious belief and the codes/rules that come with it? If you do subscribe to a particular religious belief, how much of your time and energy should be devoted to avoiding and isolating sin? Then we also have an issue because an act or thought that one of us might think is a sin isn’t viewed as a sin by someone else.
You can’t really deny that sin is a big deal in the Bible and in the Gospels themselves. It’s a concept that Jesus himself spends a lot of time on, and it was no less controversial back then. In Luke chapter five we read the story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man. The man’s friends can’t get through the crowd to bring him to Jesus, so they cut a hole in the roof and lower his cot down in front of Christ. Jesus, so impressed with the man’s faith, throws a bit of a curve ball here. In verse 20, he forgives the man’s sins instead of healing the man right off the bat. This throws the Pharisees and some of the crowd into a frenzy as they wonder who can forgive sins except God. Jesus then, using this as a teaching opportunity, then proves his authority by going ahead and healing the man.
So sin is a big deal, to Jesus and especially the Pharisees. I’m going to surprise some of you a bit here. I actually don’t think our definition of sin goes far enough. It doesn’t encompass all of the tings that it should. In fact, I think it only encompasses a small fraction of what it should.
Let me put it like this: to me we are so obsessed with personal sin and personal holiness that we forget the other side, something else that was near and dear to the heart of Christ: social holiness and social sin. What do I mean by this? In his book “Everything Must Change,” Brian McLaren equates social sin with INJUSTICE. Interesting. What are some of the injustices we’re facing in our society right now?
–The lack of quality health care available to the poor and the overall cost of care.
–Inequity in the world’s system of wealth. As of 2006, the top 5% of the world’s population owned more than 70% of the worlds’s wealth.
–Lack of food and basic necessities for hundreds of millions of people the world over.
–An overdeveloped security system of police that we’re watching fall apart all around us in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.
–The mass proliferation of the weapons of war that are sold for high profits but then make their way into the hands of groups like Latin American drug cartels and terrorists like ISIS.
–The abuse of our world and the environment resulting in the reduction of resources and an increase in global waste.
–Exclusion of and discrimination against people because of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, social status, or economic status.
This is just a small sampling of issues of injustice in our world. You could easily add more, but these are some of the ones that are closest to my heart. I believe that our participation in or ignorance of these injustices leads us into the area of social sin. As much as Christ called individuals to repentance and change, I believe that the same call goes for our societies. We have to try to fix these things.
In his supplemental material for “Everything Must Change,” McLaren uses an illustration to talk about these injustices. Let’s say you’re standing by a river and you see someone floating down toward you, in danger of drowning in the current. You get some other people, form a human chain, and rescue the individual. Just when you’re feeling pretty good about yourself, you see another person drifting toward you. As you work on rescuing her, you glance upstream and see more people being washed down the river. Not just a few, but 10, 15, or 20 drifting down the rapids and shouting for help. You can keep pulling people up, but you better send someone upstream to figure out who is pushing people into the river, because you’ll never rescue everyone. When you do this, when you investigate how and why people are ending up in the river, then you’re dealing with, and trying to correct injustice.
Injustice and social sin was important to Jesus, especially when viewed through the lens of people like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He said: “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” Wesley was famous for his views on injustice and social holiness. He was one of the early converts to the cause of ending slavery and abolishing the slave trade. He also knew that it was important to go to the people that churches traditionally exclude: the poor, the working class, prisoners, and the sick. You know, the people that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 25: 35-36. The movie “Wesley: A Heart Transformed Can Change the World” portrays him as upsetting the local clergy in England by inviting prostitutes into the churches to hear him preach and speak of Christ. To John Wesley, we as Christians have no higher calling than to address these issues and make sure that these people are included and welcomed.
Doesn’t that seem much more important than concentrating on not swearing too much or not going to rated R movies? What if we focused more of our attentions on dealing with these issues of injustice, or repenting of our social sin, than pumping up our personal piety? After all, a heart transformed can change the world, just ask Wesley.
We must remember in all of this that the reason that the Gospel and Jesus’s message of the Kingdom of God is controversial, and not because of who it excludes, but who it includes. In this vein I leave you today with another one of the parables of Christ. In Luke 14, starting in verse 15, Jesus tells a story about a man who gave a great dinner and invited all the upstanding people in the town to come and dine with him. One by one each of the people that are invited turn him down and give him an excuse as to why they cannot attend. Finally the master sends his servant out to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. The master tells his servant to compel these people to come in because he desires his house to be full for the banquet. Then at the end, the master tells the servant that none of the people who were originally invited shall taste of his great dinner.
We should remember that each time we feel like we should prop ourselves up in our personal piety or judge others for lacking it. We should remember that all people are invited to the table of Christ in the Kingdom of God, and that includes trying to make a better life for people here and now by leaving our social sin behind and working toward healing injustice and bringing reconciliation. If we fail to do this, then our personal piety and our work to avoid personal sin means very little in grand scheme of things.