Thursday, February 25, 2016

There Are No Worse Sinners

There are a handful of theological concepts that I find both essential to Christianity and exceedingly difficult to accept. These are the doctrines or beliefs of our faith that make it distinct and, well, worth believing, but they are also the same things that make me scratch my head and think, "Really?" I've never been an unchurched person, so I can't say this for sure, but I would guess that these same doctrines make it hard for a seeker to accept the faith yet also are the very things that make Christianity inviting to a secular humanist who is looking for more.

These concepts are things the fact that you don't get what you deserve; you get God's love instead. They include the physical resurrection--the belief that the whole creation, including your body, will be made new. There's the love-your-enemies command and the turn-the-other-cheek command, both of which are baffling but essential to understanding Jesus. There's the rich-become-poor and the weak-are-made-strong expectations, which, again, don't make any sense except in the Christian context.

Perhaps you notice that that list of perplexing doctrines--and, likely, any others you would add to it--are all restatements of the first. which is grace. All of them--forgiveness, a new body, love your enemies, upside-down kingdom--they all are expressions of grace. Grace is the reality that God loves you and me and all of us regardless of what we've done but only because God loves. If you build a calculus around that premise, it requires lots of other unbelievable beliefs. For example, if you don't love your enemies, you can't understand grace. They all go together, and grace is what it's all about. Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 13:1-9) presents, perhaps, the most difficult of all Christian concepts, but, again, our ability to understand and believe in grace depends upon us getting past the unbelievability of it.

When asked about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (i.e., some rebels whom Pilate had murdered as they were preparing to make a demonstration in the temple), Jesus responds, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?" Citing another example, Jesus says, "Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?" To both rhetorical questions he answers, "No." Although unvoiced, the crowd is asking, "Were these Galileans really that bad that this would happen to them?" And Jesus wants them to know for sure that God doesn't work like that. God doesn't single out "worse sinners" and punish them in brutal or tragic fashion. But that isn't all he says.

If Jesus left his answer at "No," we could leave this passage with the simple and reasonable conclusion that bad things don't always happen to bad people. You don't need to be a Christian to believe that. Lots of good, thoughtful, reasonable people acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen to good people without explanation. But that's not Jesus' point. Jesus goes further than that. There's a ethical, theological teaching in the rest of his response: "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." Wait, Jesus. What is that? You mean to suggest that there are towers waiting to fall on all of us unless we repent? Would you mind running that past me one more time?

Like it or not, sin is universal. Sin is evenly distributed across the human race. There are no worse sinners. Will a tower fall on us unless we repent? No, I don't think that's what Jesus is saying, but he is saying that the consequences of sin--small sin, great sin, public sin, private sin--are the same for each of us. He's proclaiming boldly and controversially that sin doesn't pool in the particularly low-lying sections of humanity. Sin is the same within each of us. And, therefore, the call to repent is universal, too. Without repentance, all of us are headed down the wrong path. Unless we turn around, all of us are destined to perish. Bad news? I don't think so. Actually, I think it's very good news indeed.

If you believe in God's unconditional love (e.g. John 3:16f.), you must believe in unconditional sin. Paul gets at this when he writes, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). But, even more than that, because of God's grace--God's decision to love us regardless of our sin--sin isn't comparable. God's grace is no greater for Josef Stalin than it was for Mother Teresa. Both would perish the same if it weren't for grace, and repentance is a reversal from the direction of this life to the direction of the life God has given all of us. To suggest that any one sinner is worse than another is to deny the significance of sin itself and, thus, to deny the power of forgiveness and grace.

So, think about it this way: if you can believe that God's love has no limits, can you see that sin is universally distributed? If not, I invite you to consider again what it means to be loved by God regardless of who you are and what you've done. In other words, it's an invitation to repent--a daily invitation for all of us, including, of course, me.

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