Thursday, March 2, 2017
Adam: Sin's Patient Zero
The things we teach our children stick with them--with us--for a lifetime. That's what of the reasons I like the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program since it begins by teaching our youngest children that they belong to Jesus Christ just as sheep who belong to the Good Shepherd--the one who lays down his life for the sheep. The ways we talk to children about God and death and love and the Bible and sin are seeds that sometimes don't grow up for decades. Whether in the priest's office or on the therapist's couch, we often realize much later how those childhood lessons have shaped us.
Pedagogically speaking, one of the easiest lessons to teach our children is how to behave. We punish for bad behavior and/or reward for good behavior, and, thus, our children learn the difference. But teaching our children how to behave is not the same thing as teaching them about sin, which is far more complex and difficult, but, for some reason, the much more difficult lesson gets thrown in with the simpler one, and we all grow up thinking that sin is the bad things I do. It's not.
Sin is not our misdeeds. Our misdeed are a product of sin, but equating sin with our bad behavior is like equating pregnancy with morning sickness or the flu with a fever or a broken heart with tears. All of those things are causally related--the former causing the latter--but they aren't the same thing. The flu causes fever, but fever isn't the flu. We use the word "sins" to describe those things we do wrong--"things done and left undone"--but they are symptoms--products--of a deeper problem. That problem is sin. We are sinners. We are plagued by sin. Sin is the sickness that causes lust, greed, anger, hatred, and gluttony. Avoiding those "sins" is a good thing, but simply expunging them from our life does not fix the problem any more than Advil cures the flu. It may make the symptoms harder to spot, but the flu is the flu. And sin is sin.
Paul's great exposition on sin, known as his Letter to the Romans, from which we read this Sunday, shows us this truth. "As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned," Paul writes of Adam's fall and the introduction of sin into the world. Adam is the Patient Zero for the disease known as sin. As told in Genesis, Adam (Eve, too) is the one who instigated this fall from grace--this sickness, this status of out-of-sync-ness with God's will. Remember that as the first human Adam is not only literally the cause of sin's introduction to the world but also a description of human nature itself as imperfect, as sinful. As Paul describes it, sin spreads throughout the human race because "all have sinned," which is to say that everyone has the symptoms. Everyone is infected.
And that's why Jesus' story is so beautiful and complex. Although the gift that Jesus brings us--a new life of forgiveness, redemption, and salvation from (cure for) sin--transforms the human race just as sin did, his gift is not like the sin that Adam brought. Paul writes, "For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification." Sin isn't simply the many trespasses. Sin is the one trespass. Sin enters the world and becomes (always was?) part of human nature. Regardless of the many "sins," regardless of whether we show symptoms, all are broken, all carry the sickness. Again, remember that our brokenness is not the misdeeds we do but the fact that we're flawed at all. Jesus, on the other hand, has the power to reverse that otherwise irreversible trend because, unlike the one sin that led to many "sins" and brought condemnation to all, Jesus' one gift brings one life to everyone. It does not spread like a sickness. It spreads like a cure. With Adam, one leads to many, but, with Jesus, one leads to one.
There is power and hope in confronting the reality of sin as a sickness just as there is benefit to confronting an illness as more than a collection of symptoms. It's not a bad idea to treat the symptoms, but it won't cure you. In this case, Jesus is a cure. It's complicated, though, and another post needs to be devoted to the concept that, despite being cured, we still carry traces of that sickness throughout this life. Lent, of course, being a good time to address that reality. But this Sunday, as we hear from Paul, we have the opportunity to be honest about sin--honest about what it is that ails us and what it takes to be cured.