At long last, we screech to the end of John 6, and the Never-Ending Ode to Bread. I have an ambivalent relationship with the Revised Common Lectionary, but this has to be one of the stranger choices it made–to devote 6 solid weeks in midsummer to reiterating and tiptoeing through John’s sixth chapter.
As a result, it forced me (FORCED ME, I tell you) to preach on a Pauline epistle not once, but twice! Can you even imagine! ::hand to forehead, clutches imaginary pearls and adopts grandmother’s thick Southern accent of Doom::
Truth be told, I don’t need much encouragement to go on about corporate sin vs individual sin. The minimizing of sin to merely moralistic failings within an individual’s soul is one of the worst ideas American Protestantism had (and remember, American Protestantism also popularized the prosperity gospel. So the bar here is high***.) The notion that sin can be dispensed with if I figure out how to be really super nice is toxic. The systems and societies that we build for our world can either perpetuate the injustices we commit from generation to generation, or seek to redress them–and that is not a value-neutral thing. And because currently our society perpetuates and builds upon historic oppression, we are implicated and complicit in that sin.
One final note: I cite Walter Wink a lot in this sermon, and his work is really amazing on this topic. One of the hopeful things he argues is that the powers and principalities of this world as we have constructed them are blind. They are not animate of themselves; they are only know that which we have taught them. So it is always within our grasp, with God as our aid and champion, to reform the powers of this world such that they align more properly with God’s intentions for this world.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 26, 2018
Ordinary Time, Proper 16
One of the little known perks of working in a church office is the occasional odd piece of mail. For whatever reason, some people feel a need to send their conspiracy theories, their thoughts on the apocalyse, their warnings about oncoming nuclear war, whatever random thought is in their head, to all the churches in the phone book==thinking, I suppose, that we will prove helpful in their crusade. I’ve amassed a small collection of these random end-time prophecies from different places—from the guy who insisted that Jesus was returning on the back of a nuclear warhead, to the guy this week who helpfully sent a pamphlet for me to put on my desk, so when I was raptured, whoever is left behind could find it, and feel appropriately terrified.
I bring this up, not because I think there’s validity in these sorts of prophecies necessarily, but because today’s reading from Ephesians may strike you as something that belongs in one of those omnious tracts that people stick under your car’s windshield at the grocery store. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
What in the world is that about?
There is, as I’m sure many of you have heard, a notion called spiritual warfare, which holds that the creation is subject to two forces: God, and God’s forces that work for the good, and those forces which rebel and turn away from God—which are evil. The notion of spiritual warfare commonly holds that these diametrically opposed forces are in a constant struggle over all creation, and at any given moment, anything may be coopted by one side or another—so we have to be always vigilant, lest the wrong side win.
That is not what the writer of Ephesians is talking about. To be very blunt, the idea that there is any possibility that God and God’s love would ever not have the final word would have been nonsense to the early Christians. Of course God wins. Of course. God has already won—That’s what had been proven once and for all when Jesus was raised from the dead—any suggestion otherwise was ridiculous. We know how this story ends. The powers of darkness don’t stand a chance against God; God has already won decisively.
So we’re not talking about a pitched battle here. We’re talking about something else.
Remember, that Ephesians was written as basically a “Welcome to Christianity!” pamphlet for newcomers. But it was also written at a time when Christianity was so new it didn’t have a name, and when it was illegal. If you were considering baptism, you weren’t just considering a religious option; you were considering something that would put your life, and your family’s life, at risk. The Roman Empire considered worshipping a god other that the emperor to be treasonous—and the Roman Empire controlled all aspects of life. In some way, Rome controlled what you did, how you lived, what you ate, how you dressed, who you associated with, how you believed, what you valued. Every aspect of a person’s life required them to interact with the Roman Empire, for better for worse—It was the mightiest power in the known world. So to be a Christian at that time was to profess allegiance to something over and against the system that ran your entire world. It was major.
Walter Wink—a theologian from the late twentieth century—had a theory about systems like the Roman Empire—these inchoate, massive webs that we exist in, and that you can’t really remove yourself from. We don’t have the massive Roman Empire nowadays; we don’t have an actual Caesar claiming to be an actual god—but we do have other sneaky systems. Nationalism, late-stage capitalism, and that odd mix of ideologies that is American civil religion.
For (a relatively non-controversial) example: lending money at interest! Technically, all three Abrahamic faiths are entirely against doing this. The Bible is clear—both Testaments, the Qu’ran is clear—you should not be doing this because it’s taking advantage of people in need. However, it is entirely inescapable if you want to live in America today. There’s no real way around it. If you don’t have any credit history at all, you cannot do simple things like rent an apartment or open a bank account, because our way of life is entirely dependent on the notion of lending money at interest, such that someone should profit when another person is in need.
Of course, there are more complicated and tragic cases. We all participate in systems that are larger than ourselves, and, for the most part, do not make for human flourishing. The food that is most accessible isn’t healthy or sustainable, but it’s all most people can afford. The clothing that is affordable is made by sweatshop workers in dangerous conditions, and shipped long distances, but it’s what most can afford, and so the cycle continues. And it’s not a question of individuals making different decisions; these are entire systems set up with profit, or domination, or power as the highest good, instead of God.
These systems are what Walter Wink called the ‘powers and principalities.’ This is what Ephesians is talking about—these massive webs that we exist within, that we know are idolatrous, that we know implicate us in actions that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but there is no way to exist outside of them. And because we are wrapped up in them, our actions frequently have consequences that we would not have chosen at all.
Now, that may sound depressing. The notion that we are involved in sin, basically, that we can’t control and can’t escape from. Especially if you are used to hearing about sin as an individual failing you make in your morals. I told a lie, so I sinned. Whoops! If I stop doing that, hooray! I can stop sinning. And yet, when the Bible talks about sin, 99% of the time, it’s not talking about what I do as an individual; it’s talking about what all of us do as a collective; how we treat the poor. How we make decisions about war and peace, and how to allot our food resources, and how the king uses wealth for everyone’s benefit. It’s about all of us, not just us as individuals.
And yes, corporate sin as a concept is sobering to say the least.
However, two important facts remain. The first is that humans built these systems. We created these ideologies and ideas that compose our world. And though they are bigger than us, though they are geared to ends that we don’t agree with—they are not invincible. We constructed them; we definitely can deconstruct them. Though they seem powerful now, the forces of greed, hatred, and division can be taken down by us as surely as they were first put in place.
And also, and most importantly, God has already won. In Christ, God came to earth, and decisively won against any force that would stand against humanity, and life abundant. That is already decided—there is no system, no ideology, that will win against God—not for long. We’re caught up in these webs of corporate sin, but God has already forgiven us. And so now, our job, daunting as it may seem, is to work in concert with God to redirect the systems we live in—to make every choice ultimately about how much we can help each other, instead of how we could hurt one another. Humans made these webs; we can make them better once we are aware, with God’s help.
And so, our fight is against these powers and principalities, these forces that seem to overwhelm our individual desire to do good on every side. But the God who called us is stronger than any generational sin. God calls us and empowers us to redeem every part of this creation has set a vision before us of what the world can be when all humanity, all creatures are honored as the images of God that they are. And with God’s help, not even the worst earthly power we can dream up will prevent that vision from taking shape.