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Sunday Worship 16 June | What Does Christianity Say About...Sin?

Genesis 3
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labour you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

This morning we continue our series “What does Christianity say about...?”, responding to topics suggested by members of the congregation. Last week we started with forgiveness, and this week we will be thinking about sin. You may be thinking that it would have made more sense to do those the other way around. After all, forgiveness follows sin, right? Well, yes and no. We can only forgive the sins that have been committed against us, and the repentance and reconciliation which make forgiveness meaningful must come after we have sinned against others, but God is ready to forgive us before we even know we have sinned, and I would rather root our theology and our self-understanding in God's forgiveness than in our sinfulness. Actually, I would rather take a step even further back and root both in God's love and goodness, which is the source of God's forgiveness and the ultimate ground of our faith and being, but in terms of forgiveness and sin, that is why I chose to consider them in that order.

So what does Christianity say about sin? I remember hearing the phrase ‘original sin’ as a child and assuming it referred simply to the first sin, the story of the forbidden fruit we heard earlier. It was only later that I understood that it is in fact the belief that because of that first sin, all humans are by nature sinful, and this separates us from God. This doctrine only became fully formed in the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century, but soon came to have a firm hold on Christian theology and shape Christian ideas of personhood, at least in the West. The Eastern Orthodox churches take a different approach, although I don’t know enough to comment on the difference. Original sin finds scriptural justification in verses such as Psalm 51:5, which says “in sin did my mother conceive me", and Romans 3:23, in which Paul writes that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, but I’m not sure those verses are enough to carry such a heavy idea, and I’m not sure that a broader reading of scripture justifies such a negative attitude towards humanity.

In his book Unapologetic, which argues that faith can still make sense in spite of everything that argues against it, Francis Spufford talks about the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up. Well, he doesn't actually say ‘mess’, but I thought I should be polite. I think that is a helpful way to think of sin, because it is certainly true to say that we have a strong tendency to get things wrong, in the things we do and the things we fail to do, through negligence and weakness and our own deliberate fault, as the prayers of confession I learnt as a child would have it, but I do not believe that is what ultimately defines us. We are beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, the part of creation that God declared to be very good, and we have just as strong a tendency to get things right. And so instead of original sin, I would rather speak of original blessing, acknowledging our Human Propensity to Mess Things Up, but beginning with what we might call our Human Potential to Be Utterly Wonderful.

I'm not trying to dismiss or deny the significance of sin, but I am trying to reframe the way we think of it. I have sat through liturgy that has left me feeling utterly worthless, and I have struggled to reconcile that with the overwhelming feeling of being loved that has characterised my most profound experiences of God. I do not need the church to tell me that I am a sinner, because I already know that through the pain of my own mistakes. I need the church to tell me that I am loved in spite of it, because that is the bit I have found harder to believe. There will be times when we need help to recognise the error of our ways, but there is not a single moment in which we do not need to hear that we are loved and we are blessed and we can be good.

So what do we do with the story of the Garden of Eden? I hope it will not scandalise you too much if I say that I do not believe it is or was ever meant to be a historical account of the first sin. I think it is a way of making sense of our Human Propensity to Mess Things Up in spite of our Human Potential to Be Utterly Wonderful. In eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve seek to make their own decisions about what is right and wrong, rather than relying on the judgement of God, and isn't that so often our most fundamental mistake? It doesn't mean we never get things right, but it does mean we often get things wrong, and that has consequences, which is the other part of what this story is doing, suggesting that life is harder than it might otherwise be because of the influence of sin. I don't believe that means there is a direct causal link between sin and suffering - Jesus himself smashed that idea when he healed the man born blind, insisting that his blindness was not the result of any wrongdoing - but rather that sin and suffering are part of the complexity of a world which is created but not controlled by God. 

That we are created but not controlled is of utmost importance here. I say that making our own decisions is so often our most fundamental mistake, but maybe that is how it is meant to be. We can only make a genuine choice for God if we can also make a genuine choice not for God, which might explain why God put the possibility of temptation there to begin with. And early Christian theologians such as Irenaeus read the story of the Garden of Eden as a coming of age tale, a kind of parable for the way in which we must mature and make our own way in the world. As Danielle Shroyer says in her book Original Blessing, “we are not evil villains but wayward children...[who] learn in the garden that we are capable of good and evil, and that we often do not know the difference.” It is inevitable that we will make mistakes, the important thing is to avoid the ones we can, and make up for the ones we don't.

Shroyer continues, “more importantly, we learn in the garden that we are loved, that we are clothed and sent away in peace, and that God is waiting for us even east of Eden.” Because the truth is that the consequences of Adam and Eve's actions are not all negative. Genesis 3:21 is one of my favourite verses in all of scripture. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” In my sanctified imagination, I see God stitching those garments by hand, a tender expression of love and what we might call the first act of forgiveness. Adam and Eve may be exiles from Eden but they are not abandoned by God, and that detail is so very important. As Shroyer says, “whatever consequences exist because of their actions, God’s kindness remains. God’s blessing is ever abundant. They still belong to God, and God still cares for them.” God still cares for us.

What is most important for Shroyer, and in truth for me, is that “all of creation is in relationship with God the Creator, and for reasons unfathomable to me as much as I imagine they are to you, God has decided to stick with it. The animal skins God provides to clothe Adam and Eve are God sticking with it...The covenant is God sticking with it...The prophets are God sticking with it...Jesus is God sticking with it...Pentecost is God sticking with it...This story begins with God-with-us and ends with God-with-us, and everything that happens in between declares God-with-us...Before anything else is true about us—before we can talk about what we are good at or what we are bad at, what we loathe and what we favour, before we can talk about gifts or struggles, virtues or vices, before we can even begin to talk about what it might mean for us to be saved—what is true is that we are in a relationship with God, and God started it. And God is sticking with it.” 

We have veered away from talking about sin again, haven't we? I am not trying to avoid it, but oddly enough I find that God leads me away from it. And I do want us to leave behind ideas of original sin, which many of us will have absorbed, even if we have not always been sure of the theological language, because they are damaging to our perception of ourselves and to our understanding of our relationship with God. To quote Shroyer again, “more than any other idea, the doctrine of original sin has slowly eroded our understanding of our relationship with God. Rather than seeing our lives as naturally and deeply connected with God, original sin has convinced us that human nature stands not only at a distance from God but also in some inborn, natural way as contrary to God.” But we are made to be good and we are made to be in relationship with God, and that is the truth of human nature.

It is only with that understanding firmly in place that we can move to a clearer understanding of sin. The words most commonly used in scripture are hata in Hebrew and hamartia in Greek, both of which carry a sense of “missing the mark”. Sin may then be understood as something which fails to meet God's standard, something which breaks God's rules. It is an active term, which emphasises that sin is something we do, not something we are. However the problem with such a legalistic definition is that we can't know if we're missing the mark unless we know what the mark is, and that can feel quite arbitrary. I'm sure we have all had the experience of being told we can't do something by a parent or a teacher, and then when we've asked why not, being met with the single word “because”. There is something deeply unsatisfactory about it, isn't there? It's so much easier to follow the rules when we understand why they are there, and so I think we need a better working definition of sin.

I want to suggest that sin is anything which misses the mark of original blessing, anything which damages the goodness we were created in and for. In short, I think it is anything which causes harm to any part of God's creation. Although even that is more complicated than it sounds. Good things can have harmful side effects, and we have to work out how we balance the two. Not everyone will experience harm in the same way, which is why it is so important to know ourselves and one another. And sometimes what is thought to be harmful will change, so it is important that we follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law. 

Because of this, understanding sin in terms of harm can mean challenging previously held ideas. Scripture attempts in various ways to set out what sin looks like, but part of maturing and making our own way in the world is being prepared to know better and do better than we have before. It was seeing the horrendous treatment of their fellow humans that led the abolitionists to recognise and work against the sin of slavery. And conversely it has been seeing the goodness of mutually loving same sex relationships that has led many of us to reject the idea that they are sinful and instead celebrate them as holy. Jesus said “by their fruits you shall know them”, and if the fruit of the Spirit is love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self control, we might say that the fruit of sin is hatefulness and despair and conflict and intolerance and meanness and corruption and dishonesty and cruelty and selfishness. The point is not to unthinkingly follow the gardening advice that has been passed down to us, but to nurture our particular trees so that we bear the first fruit and prune away the second.

A final word on our definition of sin, because while it is always personal, it is not only personal. Sin is a communal reality because it becomes embedded in the structures and systems that shape our lives. Racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, is not only individual actions but the attitudes behind them that are sinful. And because those attitudes can shape politics and law and culture, they can cause harm on a devastating scale, from wars to unjust social policies. Taking on those structures and systems may feel like a lost cause, but as in so many things I remain stubbornly hopeful. Jesus came to show us how to deal with our sin, how to create a world that looks more like the kingdom, built on love of God and love of neighbour. Or put it this way, if we understand sin in terms of harm, then we might understand salvation in terms of healing, and the way of Christ is the balm the world needs.

I want to close with some more words from Danielle Shroyer. “Goodness is an origin in the most literal sense: it’s how we begin. We have life only because God has blessed us with it, and when God blesses us with it, it is with grace and steadfast love. God doesn’t give life in any other way. Original blessing is simply what happens when God steadfastly decides to be in relationship with us. That relationship bestows goodness upon us, and also within us. We are steadfastly and benevolently tethered to God. Goodness is also a goal, because it’s something we become, too. From our origin of goodness, we can grow into and live into the goodness God intends for us. So original blessing isn’t just a state of being, but also a process of becoming. We could say blessing is, and blessing unfolds.” 

What does Christianity say about sin? Well at the very least it says it is not the beginning or the end of our story. So may blessing be and may blessing unfold, as you grow and live into the goodness God intends for you.

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