Just when you think old-time religion has been pushed to the margins of our society, SIN is back in the headlines. I was watching the TV news the other day and across the bottom of the screen scrolls a bulletin saying something about hundreds of people’s SINS being discovered, but then I quickly realized that “SIN” in this case was meant to refer to Social Insurance Number.
Sin is not a good word any more; it’s been largely erased from our theological vocabulary. We don’t like the term “sinner” because it suggests an older and oppressive form of religion in which people were routinely denounced simply for being human.
The old myth suggested that we are inherently flawed, that given a choice, we incline to the selfish, to looking out for ourselves to the detriment of the needs of others. The new myth suggests we are inherently good, and yet there may be a serious case of self-deception in that approach. As is so often the case, the truth may dwell somewhere between the two extremes.
Despite today’s enlightened and liberated approach, there seems to be more sinners around than you can count! Even this recent act of stealing people’s SINs (their Social Insurance Numbers) is a somewhat ironic case in point, proving that there are people out there without a meaningful moral compass, who obviously need a stiff corrective of some kind.
Once upon a time, people believed that if they did certain things, they would have God to reckon with. Most people now don’t think they’re going to hell any more, or in fact that there are any real consequences for harmful behavior, so people largely do what they want – the only “sin” in their minds is getting caught.
At one time, the whole “We need to be rescued from sin” motif was prominent and in some cases no doubt appropriate – I have always said you need a different pastoral approach for services at senior care centres than for prisons, where you’re dealing with gangsters and other hardened criminals.
I would see sin in terms of malice, prejudice, dishonesty and abusiveness toward others — the willingness to damage or undermine other people’s lives for personal gain. That’s sin in the old fashioned sense. You could say that sin is a commitment to the service of self at the expense of the rights and needs of others – it is the tendency to treat people as things or commodities. Sin is indifference to others.
Sin implies wrongdoing or transgression on a spiritual, not just a social, level, so perhaps that why our secular society has pretty much dismissed it. Based on something about word origins that one of my seminary professors taught us, I have tended to see sin in terms of separation, specifically in terms of conscious and deliberate separation – the rejection of the connections between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the creation, between ourselves and God.
Almost everything in our society tends toward separation, creating distinctions, creating reasons for pride, and we celebrate the myth of the successful individual. But our prehistoric ancestors did not succeed because they were more powerful or faster; they did not advance because they understood themselves to be more special than other creatures on the planet. Our ancient ancestors evolved and progressed because they knew the value of unity – they knew how to cooperate and communicate and work together. Sadly, now that the human race has the capacity to rise to the challenge of caring for the planet as a whole organism or community, we no longer seem to know how to cooperate and work together as one.
Jesus reminded his followers of the ancient Jewish understanding about the oneness, the uniqueness, of God. “The Lord your God is One . . .” he said, and so God must be loved with the totality of our being, not in a fragmented, token way. Sin is resisting that summons of Christ into unity – into oneness with the Father. Sin is that tendency to persist in living only for the self – the ego – or the False Self, as some would say. Moving toward God is integration, becoming one with all; while moving away from God is dis-integration, living in the delusion that we are all that matters on the planet.
When Jesus used the image of people refusing to attend a wedding feast, this is what he was pointing to. Weddings at that time were activities which involved the entire community; in Jesus’ teaching, the refusal of these individuals becomes a metaphor of the human tendency to choose self over other, to the detriment of the community.
Why was Jesus killed? Well, the religious authorities and the Roman occupiers introduced a lot of red herrings into the proceedings against Jesus, but largely, he was condemned because he claimed oneness with God — because he would not accept, and wanted to do away with, the many arbitrary barriers of separation that he encountered in the world of the time.
Jesus was condemned and crucified for claiming that oneness with God was possible. “I and the Father are one,” he said. Of course that sounds presumptuous to those who are ignorant of the possibility. But the more I read the New Testament, and try to appreciate Jesus, it seems to me the call of Christ, and the movement of the Spirit is toward the One. And traditionally, spiritual maturity in the Christian sense is defined and indentified by the degree of unity, harmony and concord that characterize our lives.
The Gospel of John says that Jesus offered himself for the sins of the whole world. Well, this is the essential sin for which Jesus gives his life, this orientation toward the ego and away from love of the whole. Jesus’ approach is global, universal, cosmic, while the direction of the false self is egocentric and exclusive – oriented toward the separate self. The way of Jesus is rooted in love; the way of the false self is rooted in fear.
As John’s Gospel says, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” – that is, the gift of God in Christ is a gift to ALL, whereas the ego takes a much more selective and restrictive approach.
Sin is deliberate, chosen, persistent separation from the One. “Love your neighbour as yourself,” as Jesus said, and as we mature in faith we begin to recognize that if you hate your neighbour it is actually yourself you are hating, because it is all part of the One, which is God our Creator. In God there is no other – there is only One. Those who cause disunity are not just a problem in the community in a social sense; they are a problem because they are undermining the very thing the Spirit is trying to do, because God is one and God is about creating unity/harmony/communion. St Paul was right: in Christ all false distinctions cease to have any meaning, which is why he says that in Christ there is no longer male/female, Jew or Greek, etc. It is all seen as part of One, and only when we see it that way can we truly be the Body of Christ.
That is the unitive vision or experience toward which the great saints and mystics aspire. And yet as Paul also knew so well, the world perversely chooses darkness over light, death over life. He saw that phenomenon in his own life — how he inexplicably, even perversely, chose what he knew to be wrong (and harmful to himself) despite his best intentions. And yet even there, the One prevails, and that is what we celebrate on Good Friday.
John’s Gospel above all points to that unity which Jesus not only talked about but was. He was, or became, one with the Divine, the Source of all being. And if we all come from the same source, exactly the same can be said about us: we too were in the beginning with God, because being is not restricted to time and place – all being comes from the One source, the great “I AM.” Christ’s promise to us is that we may be where he is, in that place of spiritual union with God; like him, we can become the way, we can become embodiments of truth and life. In Christ ,the impossible becomes possible.
For most people, Good Friday has become a day of shopping, catching up on household chores, perhaps washing the car or playing golf, and none of these are bad things to do, but it is now just a few of us in this world who pause to mediate on the significance of this day, who make the choice to become, as it were, “painfully aware” of what was really happening in this act of self-sacrifice that is the Crucifixion.
It is not an event specific to Christians. We are asked to believe that what was going on this day is symbolic of something much bigger than the historical event that happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We assert in faith that the Passion of Christ – this moment of surrender and crucifixion – is pointing to something universal and cosmic. Of course this story connects and overlaps with other great religious myths and beliefs, because all are striving to comprehend and connect with the same thing.
Good Friday speaks to us of a necessary transformation – a healing in the relationship between humanity and all that God has created; a need to re-align our private purposes with the one divine purpose as we see it articulated and embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It speaks of the need for a deep healing in the heart of human beings which can only be effected by faith, because it is a gift of God’s grace.
We emphatically do not have Communion on this day because it is the one day that we recognize and lament the almost absolute failure of the world to embrace the unity that Communion symbolizes; it is the one day above all when we are obliged to sit with our own significant contributions to all the hostility and hatred and suspicion and condemnation that is in the world; it is the day to ask ourselves: Why am I choosing to put that into the community around me? Good Friday is the day when we acknowledge and admit the many ways we choose death over life, and self over others.
Good Friday is Good News precisely because it reminds us that we are sinners, that we are not yet one with the Father, and that we do not yet love our neighbours as ourselves, so that we are not tempted to persist in some delusion that we are better or other than we actually are. Otherwise, we would be missing out on a magnitude of blessing and fulfillment because we assume things are already as good as they get. Good Friday is a reality check that some people prefer to avoid.
This is the one day when we are invited to move our relationship with God beyond the perfunctory or token and into the real, in the awareness that real relationships are sometimes difficult and painful and require us to die to our false self. Good Friday is not just about dying, as though that were an end in itself. It is about surrendering in faith, laying down our false self and the empty ego-centric life that goes with it, in order to undergo the transformation from death to life. It is about making the choice to become one with Christ in his death and Resurrection. It is about choosing to trust that the Crucifixion is the greatest sign of God’s undying love for all.
Good Friday reminds us that all of this happened because God loves the world that much, and urges us to stop resisting the love of God, stop resisting the invitation to the wedding feast of the kingdom where all are one, and stop denying who we really are. In the Book of Revelation the risen Christ says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock – if you open the door, I’ll come and we’ll eat and drink together.” In Christ, life becomes an abundant feast that is offered and intended for all.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+