John 15.1-4 (NIV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
We’ve been discussing what we think are the necessary components of 21st Century Christianity, both personal and communal. Through our previous discussions about Jesus, the gospels, and the Bible, we’ve helped each other better appreciate the rich conversational heritage of Jesus’s followers.
My hope is that by remembering Jesus’ tradition was to teach us to think for ourselves, we’ll give ourselves permission to question some “traditional” Christian thought. Jesus challenged the accepted thinking of his day. If we’re his students, we should follow his example.
Today, we’re going to examine the concept of sin. Jesus might be the cornerstone of Christian faith, but sin is the foundation. Some of us in the progressive, emerging Christian movement don’t like to talk about sin. I think that’s in part because we immediately think of original sin, which progressives reject.
The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary defines sin as “human deviation from the expressed will and desire of God—as it is developed and presented in the OT and NT.” The ancient Jewish people’s “prophets, priests, wisdom teachers (like Jesus) and lawmakers reflected on sin in a variety of ways.” In the early days of Christianity, this conversation also began to reflect their thoughts about God’s activity in Jesus.
So, let’s consider what it means to “[deviate] from the expressed will and desire of God.”
I like this definition of sin because it reminds me of the name of our church: The Current. We chose that name because we liked the imagery of God as a river, gently moving the universe toward ultimate love. As free-willed (perhaps), sentient beings in God, we can choose to swim with, or against, the current. Swimming against the current is deviating from “the will of God.”
According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, in the First Testament, sin and other labels are applied to any “harmful or rejected behavior that impairs relationship to the divine.” This gave the ancient Jewish people a fair amount of objectivity about sin and how to deal with it. Their original concept of sin was as a sort of “miasma” that had to be cleansed from both people and places.
The priests offered cultic ritual cleansings, but the prophets warned people to be skeptical about relying on rituals to reconnect them with God. They instead encouraged people to individually repent and confess (topics we’ll discuss next time) thereby being reformed—re-formed back into the loving image of God.
For many of us, our first exposure to the idea of sin is the story of Adam and Eve. We’re told that because they ate the apple, we all get old and die. While that interpretation acknowledges the corporate, structural nature of the story (Adam and Eve represent all humankind), it also presumes expulsion from the Garden rather than something more deeply mystical and metaphysical: that leaving the Garden was required, that learning about good and evil was necessary, for God to be fully human.
Unfortunately, the concept that Adam and Eve left the garden with God’s blessing was lost by the time Christianity became an Imperial religion.
In the 4th Century, Augustine of Hippo cemented the idea that Adam and Eve exiting the Garden was humanity’s original sin. Consequently, we’re all born sinners and there’s nothing we can do about it. Mortality is the cost of being human. Why that’s a sin still escapes me.
At any rate, Augustine, not satisfied to merely condemn the entirety of humanity to hell, then mangled the Second Testament stories about Jesus, twisting their meaning so drastically as to make them unrecognizable to their original audience. I suspect the original meanings of Bible stories would shock most Christians today.
Augustine’s Confessions was published not long after Rome made Christianity the state religion. Massively influenced by Augustine, politically motivated, and somewhat unable and unwilling to give up their Pantheistic roots, the new Roman Catholic church transformed Jesus from a humble, itinerant, enlightened Jewish buddha, to the savior and king of the universe, humankind’s only hope for salvation from Adam and Eve’s mortal curse.
For the Romans, Jesus became about the quest for immortality after death, whereas for the Jews, Jesus’ intended audience, he represented hope that God was bringing about a new world here and now, by transforming everyone into a Christ-like being.
While Augustine’s idea about original sin eventually became doctrine for both Catholics and Protestants, sin as described in the Bible is much more nuanced than merely the condemnation of humanity to mortality.
I had a terrific theology professor back in the day. I was going over my old class notes to prep for this article, and thought I’d just share these notes I took about Serene Jones, who has since become one of my favorite theologians. She describes sin in much more contemporary terms. She writes that:
- we sin when we consider ourselves God and burden ourselves with too many tasks. Thinking we can do it all is hubris.
- we sin when we divide people by race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and decide some people are more, or less, beloved by God. Obviously, we’re all created differently, so differences must be okay.
- sin is structural (endemic to the entire population) as much as personal. We support sinful structures even when we don’t intend to. Owning an iPhone supports a lot of systemic sin.
- sin is living against the good God has set out for us and all creation
Theologian Clark Williamson once wrote that human beings—all human beings—are good because we are treasured by God. He said that sin comes not from being human, but from the way humans act, especially in groups. Williamson wrote, “The crimes of the poor in the Ghetto are crimes, but so is the Ghetto.”
Question:Is your concept of sin more personal or corporate (as in the entire body of human beings)? What does the metaphor of sin mean today?