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What we talk about when we talk about sin

I had entirely forgotten, but I apparently dove right into Lent and preached on original sin. Whoo boy.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 1, 2020

Lent 1, Year A

Matthew, Romans

As it is Lent, and as I appear to have fallen prey to some sort of Lent-induced psychosis, let’s just dive into Paul’s letter to the Romans today, and talk about sin!

The lectionary this Sunday is sin coming and going.  Or-rather, it hits the points that we are used to hearing associated with sin.  There’s the story of the garden, there’s Paul talking about justification through Christ, and then there’s Jesus resisting the devil’s temptations in Matthew. Trouble is, sin is one of those words that has been tossed around so much in our world that sometimes we don’t always know what we mean by it.

So, today: sin!  

First off, a quick stop over in Genesis, and a reminder that this story isn’t literal.  I know that you know that, but when we get to this particular story, occasionally theologians suddenly get more literal than they would otherwise.  The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is really fascinating in that they are such little kids.  They’re told “Look, there’s ONE THING you can’t do.  Please don’t do this one thing” so of course, they promptly do that one thing.  They can’t resist.  We aren’t told why Eve thinks this would be good, she just does. And Adam promptly follows suit.

There are a lot of things that I love about this story, but we don’t have time to dwell today.  Suffice it to say that this story is less about How Humans Became Evil, and more about How Choices Have Consequences.  Adam and Eve make a choice and disobey God, and then can’t control the consequences of that choice.  But—their relationship with God is not severed, even when they immediately assume that it is.  God immediately seeks them out, and again constructs a way to be in relationship. Their initial disobedience causes fear, and distrust of God, whom they had never been scared of before, which in turn causes more fear, and more disobedience, and more fear, and so on and so forth.  But even as the humans will continue to act in fear and confusion—precisely because they’re human—God continues to seek them out over time.  Time and time again. 

So this brings us to Romans.  Paul’s letter to Romans is basically Paul’s attempt to explain his understanding of how faith in Jesus works, in a cosmic, logical sense.  Paul, remember, is a smart guy—he was a trained Pharisee, so he knew all the Jewish law backwards and forwards.  He was a Roman citizen, and he was pretty well connected.  He’s writing here to some Christians in Rome, and trying to explain how Jesus fits within their worldview of Greek philosophy, and as people distantly acquainted with Jewish thought.

In other words, he’s trying to explain why Jesus matters, using Greek philosophy and Jewish faith.  And we need to bear that in mind when we read Romans, because his context is different than ours.  Paul, for example, as a faithful Jew didn’t see the Genesis story as establishing original sin, the way Augustine, or horrors—John Calvin, does later.  

So when Paul talks about righteousness, he’s not talking about moral purity, or about obsessively correct behavior.  Righteousness was understood in a Jewish context to be when you have done everything required of you by the law, so that you were in correct relationship with everyone.  You didn’t owe your workers, you didn’t withhold from your parents, you didn’t cheat your spouse.  You were righteous.  It wasn’t an inner state at all—it was a social state. 

To be justified was to be made righteous.  It was when someone else came in and settled all debts you had outstanding.  Like, if your older brother stepped in and paid your workers for you and made sure your kids were provided for.  Then your older brother had justified you.  Again, it’s not an interior state of purity.  It’s a really concrete social idea that can be demonstrated.

Here’s where it gets complicated!

Paul is arguing a logic train here.  Look, he says: like we good religious folk who know our Hebrew Scriptures know that Adam’s disobedience caused unforeseen consequences and the entry of death into the world.  This is a story we have.  Sin—this wacky human proclivity to make dumb choices—has always been here, he points out.  And we know this.  It’s why God gave us the law, to restrain our dumb choices.

If that sort of cascading effect happened once, then couldn’t it happen again?  Why couldn’t Jesus who in his life and presence brings us closer to God, have a similar effect?

Jesus makes us all righteous, Paul argues.  Not because he satisfies an angry God who desires a blood sacrifice, but because Jesus was able to live a correct human life of total obedience to God, even when it was most difficult.  In Jesus’s life, we are no longer separated from God by the effects of disobedience, by our fear and distrust.  We are brought near, and we are enfolded into the Divine life.  We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

Jesus’ entire life undoes the effects of our human proclivity to make bad choices, because it brings us near again to God, and shows us what is possible when we live in communion with God.

I realize talking about sin is not super popular, and original sin is less so.  But original sin, at its heart, is not the idea that babies are intrinsically evil.  It is more the idea that bad decisions, and their consequences, build on themselves.  The decisions my ancestors made—the effects of many of them were individual.  But the effects of a lot of them continue to affect me.   And then those make it harder to make good decisions.

Jesus, in his life, and his radical obedience to God, and not to the powers of the world, made it clear that another way is possible for us.  We may not get there now, but God is bringing it about slowly and surely.  The sin that follows us so closely since the days of Adam, trapping us in fear and panic, won’t always dog our steps.  God has given us a way out in Jesus.  

So every time we act on our faith, and not on our fear, every time we follow Jesus instead of the way the world always works, we are turning away from sin and towards the God who loves us.  We are coming one step closer to the day that the web sin built won’t entangle this world anymore.  And in the meantime, we do our best that we can and ask for forgiveness for the times we don’t get there.  But we try, bit by bit.  Because sin or no sin, God loves us dearly, and is with us regardless, and has sent Jesus to undo the mess we humans get ourselves in.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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