When I was a child I thought of sin in very concrete terms – sins were bad things that you did. My first memory of committing a sin is from age 4. I took my sisters hair clip for my dresser drawer and then lied about it even though I was holding in my hand in plain view of my mother.
As I grew my definition of sin deepened. I remember as a teenager reading the version of the confession in our prayer book service of compline, and thinking “yes, that is it!” It reads, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father: we have sinned against you through our own fault in thought, word and deed and in what we have left undone.” That last part is what got me- that sin includes not just my misdeeds, but also missed opportunities for good deeds too. (By the way compline is a wonderful way to end each day, and if you are not familiar with it check it out sometime on the Book of Common Prayer page 127.)
In my late 20s when I got to seminary and encountered St. Paul’s writings in-depth, my thinking on sin expanded further. In our lesson from the letter to the Romans this morning, Saint Paul talks about Sin, singular with a capital S, not sins, plural with a small s. Writing about St. Paul’s concept of sin in the letter to the Romans The Rev. Beverly Gaventa comments that:
“Paul defines Sin as that universal and intractable refusal of human beings to acknowledge that God is God and that they are but the products of God’s hand (Rms. 1:18-23).” (From “The Christian Century Magazine, June 2-9, 1993, p.595).
So Paul’s Capital S Sin is not about action or in action, it is about how one grounds one’s life – on God or on self? Rev. Gaventa goes on to write:
“What antidote can there be for sin when it is understood in this way? Forgiveness works well enough as a cure for the sins of the small s – a vicious deed here and kindness withheld there can be forgiven. But Sin with a capital S which holds human life in a stranglehold cannot be shooed away by talk of forgiveness. Paul resorts to the more forceful language of new life and liberation.” (Ibid)
Many people in our day can find Paul quite frustrating at this point because he does not go on to elucidate a list of what we are to do in response to this incredible new life and liberation from the strangle hold of Sin that he is speaking of. In our world we are looking for the details of how to enact the changes we want. We want to know, “what do we do to put this liberation and new life into motion?” Paul does not answer this question. Rather, Rev Gaventa writes:
“He sketches our task in general terms. For example, he speaks of believers as ‘slaves to righteousness’ and urges transformation ‘by the renewing of your mind’ but offers little and way of a list of action steps or rules we crave.”
This reminds me of a dynamic that one often sees in those who come into the 12-step fellowship that exist as a way of healing for those suffering from addictions in their own life or the life of someone they love. Often people come to a 12 step meeting for the first time when the pain of life lived in the shadow of addiction becomes too much to bear and they have heard the good news that the 12 steps are away out. They arrive ready and motivated to make changes in their lives. Many start out by thinking that the 12 steps are something to be climbed through will power and stick- to- it -iveness. What we quickly learn is that the first step requires no forward moving action – rather it requires surrender. The first of the 12 steps reads: “We admitted we were powerless over addictions and that our lives had become unmanageable.” So nothing to do but to admit how bad it is and how powerless we are over it. Some then move quickly to step two, but that is not much more satisfying to those who crave activity. It reads “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Some wonder, “What are we supposed to do about that? “ Others may say, “Hey who are you calling insane? I may be living with addictions but I am not crazy – give me some tasks to do and I will show you.”
These first 2 steps can be uncomfortable if we are looking for some way to solve our problem through our own action. It is only when we become willing to admit defeat that we become ready to receive the help the steps extend to us. In his writing about sin in the letter to the Romans St. Paul calls us to the same place of surrender. He calls us to admit just how bad the effects of Sin are in our lives and how insane we have become under its influence. He then invites us to accept that it is only through God’s intervention, which we must willingly invite, that we will be restored to sanity.
If we reach that willingness, the third of the 12 steps invites us to complete the work of surrender – it reads “Made a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God as we understood God.” We Christians understand God to be fully present to us in God’s son, our Lord Jesus Christ. For me, Paul’s words about being “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” and what the first three of the 12 steps are saying fit well together. They both tell me that when I become willing to surrender my sinful approach to life – run on self-will, self-centeredness, and self-seeking behaviors- when I surrender that, I create an opening for God to enter and liberate me from bondage to self.
For some – like Paul on the Damascus Road – this liberation is a sudden all at once experience. For many others this liberation into a new life is experienced more as a process. But the result in both cases is that our lives begins to take shape around God’s will, or plan, or purposes and not our own. To be sure there are then actions to be taken by us – steps 4-9 of the 12 steps are full of faithful actions. But these action steps can only be taken on the good foundation of surrender of self-will and acceptance of God’s will in our life.
In his words to us in the Gospel Jesus also describes the marks of a life that is built such spiritual liberation. He speaks of someone who welcomes other people with open hearted and radical hospitality. He describes someone who receives a prophet and a prophet’s message, even when it is not easy to hear. He even points to the person who could go totally unnoticed – the one who is present to God and others in what might seem like inconsequential ways – one who extends a cup of cold water to a thirsty one – but who is nonetheless motivated by a sense of God’s purpose- one for whom no act for God’s sake is too small. All these Jesus says are disciples following in his way listening for his direction. And Jesus says that none who act on this premise – of listening for his guidance – “will lose their reward.”
And what is this reward Jesus speaks of? In my experience it is the reward of relaxing into a posture of trust that what I am going to be called to for God’s good ends will be revealed to me each step of the way. It is the reward of not needing to burn precious energy struggling to figure out on my own what I am supposed to do. And when I am faced with uncertainty it is the reward of knowing that I can ask for that guidance and inspiration and the reward of finding that when I do this – and I do not do it perfectly – God never fails to show up and lead me to wonderful possibilities for service, giving and growth that are beyond my wildest imaginings. I know many you receive this reward daily also – thanks be to God!
My prayer is that liberation from the way of Sin may be ours and the reward of the new life of grace in Christ Jesus will continue to be seen to abound among us, one day at a time.
In the name of our Great and Loving God. Amen.