Monday, June 29, 2009

Finding Jesus Christ: The meaning of sin

Click here for an explanation about this series: "Finding Jesus Christ."

We've heard Jesus make shocking claims about himself in our study of the Gospel of John, how he is the Son of God, how he came down from heaven, how he is the revelation of the Father, how we will raise the dead and judge the world someday.

But what about the side of Jesus that we love to hear about, the famous stories of how he reached out to the outcasts of his day? He healed a blind man. He defended an adulterous woman. He allowed a prostitute to wash his feet. All that good stuff. It's wonderful to think that there was once a man who crossed all boundaries, disregarding social norms and puritanical rules.

But of course Jesus claimed to be more than just a man. He claimed to be the Son of God from heaven, which means his love for people was not just across the boundaries of human differences. His love crossed the boundary that divided heaven from earth, the holy from the unholy, the glorious from the profane. So when you read about Jesus' love for the blind man and the adulteress and the prostitute, these relationships are pictures that are meant tell us something about ourselves. The lesson is not that God views some people as less lovely than others, but rather that all of us are unlovely, and yet wonderfully loved, from the divine perspective. The blind man is helpless, the adulteress is guilty, the prostitute is sinful. If you wish to receive Jesus' love, you must identify with these people. You must also view yourself as helpless, guilty and sinful.

Maybe that offends you. Maybe you're gay and I offended you by suggesting that you, as a gay man or woman, might be helpless and guilty and sinful. So let's forget about being gay. In fact, let's say for the sake of this discussion that being gay is perfectly acceptable in God's eyes. That still wouldn't change the problem of our sinfulness. Yours. Mine. Everyone's.

Maybe it will help to think of it this way. We were meant to be good. We aspire to be good and generous, even heroic. We were meant to be able to stand before God openly, not cringing, but rather testifying that we have lived our lives honorably and righteously from beginning to end. If all of us lived that way, just imagine, there would be no end to the energy, the creativity, the generosity and joy we would know from living together and sharing with one another. The human race would not be a curse to the planet, but earth's greatest blessing.

And yet there is reality. What was meant to be, is not what we are. What we desire for ourselves has never been realized by any of us. The cause of this condition is what many people call sin. We are corrupted by our sin. We are like birds with damaged wings, who retain the instinct of flight, but the best we can do is crawl along the ground. In our case we are morally and spiritually crippled. We aspire to take flight in the heights of righteousness but are permanently grounded in our own corruption.

Every Sunday at church there is a moment of silence during the service when I am asked to reflect on my conduct over the past week and confess my sins. When I first became a Christian, I used to be very pious about confessing sins. I would silently berate myself in the strongest possible adjectives over how rebellious and disgusting and perverse I have been. Now I realize that I was trying to talk myself into thinking all those things because I didn't believe I was really that sinful. Nowadays I lecture myself less because I believe those things about myself more, and even when I'm not sure I do believe it, another part of me knows better. I've seen it for myself.

Now when I sit in silent prayer, I often reflect upon how, in the past week, I have felt a great moral sluggishness. Sometimes I recall things I have done and regret, but more often the oppressive feeling comes from things I've left undone. Kind words I should have spoken, time and money I should have spent in other ways, people I should have taken time with had I been less self-absorbed. Those sins may sound less spectacular than, say, getting drunk every night, but in truth the sins of selfishness and hard-heartedness and neglect lie at the root of the sickness that plagues our entire human existence. They dog both the best and the worst among us. They ensure that everything we do, even the best and most noble achievements, will be tainted with a vague feeling of emptiness.

The true sickness of sin isn't something I can always put a finger on. I know a certain cloud of depression because of my own uselessness, and a kind of dullness in my conscience because of the excuses I've layered over it to assuage my guilt. And so I come to church to lay the entire burden upon Jesus and let him set me free with his forgiveness. The righteous don't need to be forgiven and set free. The helpless, guilty and sinful do. We love to see Jesus do this for other people, and it only costs us our pride to get in on it ourselves.