When I was a little girl and we recited the Lord's Prayer in church, I always got quiet at the part, "Forgive us our debts." I was a good girl - I didn't have any debts! I wasn't a sinner, so wouldn't I be lying if I said I did? I was not more than 7 years old.
As I grew up, I began to understand that some people believe in original sin - Adam and Eve eating the apple from the expressly forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, although I'm still not sure who committed the original sin - Eve for offering it or Adam for eating it? And hadn't the snake already sinned? (l feel I should reassure you, dear readers, that I don't believe Adam and Eve were real people). Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil - well, once that was done they had choices to make, and unfortunately people sometimes choose evil. Anyway - I began to understand that due to Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the garden, humans are sinners, and God hates sin.
I've been thinking about sin lately. This is not something I usually dwell on - I accept that as a human being I am a "sinner," and that Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, died for my sins. This, in a nutshell, is called Atonement Theory. I sin, and Jesus hung on the cross to "ransom" me from Satan. I found a great paper from Notre Dame on Atonement Theory - you can access it here if you are interested.
In the Communion liturgy of the United Methodist Church, which I repeated almost monthly for about 30 years, the pastor reads the words, "By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit." Slavery to sin and death. I am a sinner, so Jesus had to die so that I can have eternal life. If Jesus didn't die on the cross, I would go to hell because I would be a sinner, but since Jesus was resurrected I don't have to worry about being dead because I am no longer a slave to sin and death!
I've been rethinking this. Partly because I never really felt enslaved to sin or death - I know I will die someday, and I assume I will go to heaven, because while I know I sin, I try to be good. Also because I've been reading Paul's letter to the Romans.
In the book of Romans, Paul talks about the grace of God, given through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the process talks a lot about sin. Here is a snippet:
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:15-21, NRSV)
I'd like to unpack this a little.
First, I read "death" as separation from God. I can be separated from God while my physical body is alive, and I can rot in hell when my physical body is dead, if I am a sinner, which I am - we all are. We all "died through the one man's trespass" when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Again, if we read death as separation from God, then we died when the fruit was eaten, although this was not a physical death. We were separated from God.
Verse 16: "For the judgment following one trespass [Adam's] brought condemnation, but the free gift [Jesus's] following many trespasses brings justification." OK, so Adam sinned, and all of us have paid the price, and Jesus died and so all of us are "justified," or made righteous again, with righteousness being sinlessness. So we can again be in relationship with God.
But there was this thing called The Law, that came between Adam and Jesus. You'll remember: Moses brought the 10 Commandments down from the mountaintop, where he had been meeting with God. And then God gave a whole bunch of laws to Moses in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and apparently sinning went through the roof ("law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied").
Why? What happened to cause sinning to multiply? We try to be good - don't we?
Let's look at the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17, NRSV). They're pretty straightforward, right?
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. No problem for me - but are there other names for God? Allah? Jehovah? The Goddess? Vishnu? Enlightenment? Are these other names also other gods? I don't think so - I think they are other names for God, in which case, God doesn't mind. Especially since what you call God is more a function of where you were born and into which family.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. I don't have any golden calves around - but I do have some elephants that my great grandmother collected. I don't worship them, though - shoot, I don't even remember to dust them half the time. But define idol - if we talk about money, ego, work, church, football, movie stars, am I sure I'm not worshipping any of those? Hmmm, this one is a little trickier than it might first appear. Also, if my parents were righteous and I am a holy hell raiser, do my kids get a pass under the steadfast love to the thousandth generation because of my parents, or will they be punished because of my inequity?
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. OMG - we do this all the time! Saying "I swear to God," isn't something I usually say, but I've heard plenty of other people say it - frequently. And I'm not sure it is any better to drop the "to God," and just say, "I swear..." which I do, but God knows. Same with "Gosh, Golly, honest to Pete, Good grief," - just because we change a word or a few letters does that mean God winks it away? Hope so.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. But what if I LIKE cutting the grass and it rained on Saturday? Sunday is the day our family gathers for dinner and it has to be cooked! I have to do all my errands on Saturday because I work all week and those groceries aren't going to buy themselves. The only time slot available to sell Girl Scout cookies was on Sunday at 11 AM, for Pete's sake (see #3)! And football? Well the college games are on Saturday and the pro games on Sunday, and while I might be relaxing while I watch the players sure aren't.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. But they drive me crazy! And the kids have soccer, and we have to sell cookies, and how often do I have to visit them to be honoring them adequately? What if they need more care than I can give but they want to stay in their home? How do I honor them then?
You shall not murder. Does that include stinkbugs? Because I've been on a murderous rampage killing the stinkbugs that have made their way into my house lately (spiders and hornets get captured and escorted outside. Stinkbugs who are too stupid to know better than to come inside get dropped into a cup of soapy water).
You shall not commit adultery. I have been faithful to my husband, but I admit to having had crushes on a variety of famous people over the years - see commandment #2.
You shall not steal. I don't steal, but I have brought home the occasional paperclip. And I used to joke that pens procreated in my pocket when I was a nurse - I would start my shift with one and by the time it was over I would have 5 or 6, while others would be wondering what happened to their pens.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. But gossiping is so FUN! And I heard it from a reliable source! And it isn't fake news if I believe it. And "they" aren't my neighbors anyway. And we have freedom of speech.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Maybe not, but I'll covet the house I saw on TV, I'll covet whiter teeth, better health, a car that can drive off road so I can destroy - I mean enjoy - pristine areas of nature, and that beer that will make me the perfect hostess, and perfect kids, and sparkling floors, and the newest phone, diamond jewelry and...
So. Apparently the 10 commandments aren't as easy to follow as we might think. And we haven't even gotten to the bulk of the Hebrew law yet, which I am not going to attempt to encapsulate or explain because more learned people (rabbis) than I have been trying for thousands of years.
And, have you ever noticed that when someone says, "you can't do that!" it is exactly what you want to do? I'm going to cut out ice cream, so guess what I am craving every night? The law came in and trespass multiplied. Perhaps because what had been permissible before the law wasn't any more? I don't know.
OK, so we sin. We've been taught that it is only through Jesus' gruesome death that our sins are forgiven - we are "washed clean" and "white as snow."
But we still sin.
Some of us have been told that God is a loving, merciful God who only wants to be in relationship with us, and who wants us to have the lives that God lovingly prepared for us. Others of us are taught that God is a vengeful, wrathful God, who just might cast you into the fires of hell, but you won't know until you get there so you'd better pray because there is no redemption from hell. And while we're at it we'd better convert everyone around us to keep them from the fiery furnace.
I hope you know which camp I am in. I don't worry much about hell.
Matthew and Luke both say that you can't serve two masters (Mt 6:24 and Lk 16:13): “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Our brains are not wired to attend to more than one thing at a time. Multitaskers are just really good at rapid switching, and aren't giving either task the attention they deserve. So you know that old hymn, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus! Look full in his wonderful face!" We can't cast our eyes on Jesus and be watching for Satan or sin at the same time. To paraphrase Joshua (24:15), You have to choose who you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
As I was reading Paul's letter to the Romans it occurred to me that maybe we've gotten this whole slavery to sin and death thing all wrong.
We can't serve two masters, and if we are totally focused on FULFILLING THE LAW, we are also focused on NOT SINNING. This takes our attention away from God, although some will argue that fulfilling the law puts our attention on God, and I am not going to argue with them.
Why did God feel the need to give the Law? I think it was to set the Israelites - God's chosen people - apart from those around them. God wanted to establish a community, a family, a people, and to do that they had to be different. There is a lot of camaraderie in hewing to a set of strict rules - ask anyone who has ever been to boot camp. But it is also really hard to keep up with every little rule - just ask the U.S. Supreme Court, who are still interpreting the laws that the U.S. Constitution established nearly 250 years ago.
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." The law was fulfilled by Jesus' death. I no longer have to worry about crossing every i and dotting every t - Jesus has done that for me. I will fall short and make mistakes and bring home someone else's paper clip, and I will definitely continue to kill stinkbugs. But if I desire a right relationship with God and my neighbors - whoever and wherever they may be - then I am doing right by God. I am no longer a slave to sin and death because I'm not worried about it any more.
So if this is the case, does that mean I don't need to try to live in right relationship with God? I can go on killing stinkbugs with impunity, I can walk out of the grocery store without paying, I can gossip and be a mean girl, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want because I WANT TO?
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.(Romans 6:12-14).
The thing is, if you look at the law, it was partly about how to be right with God, and mostly about being right with God by being right with each other. You will have no other Gods before me - because those other "gods" pit you one against the other. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God - let your word be your word and don't confuse people. You shall not make for yourself an idol - Idol worship was a real thing, and involved sexual promiscuity, which meant that women and young boys were abused in the name of "religion." Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy - it is to be a day of rest, not just for you but for those who serve you, who might otherwise be worked to exhaustion. Honor your father and mother because elders are to be revered and cared for - not cast out and left to die. You shall not murder because others have the same right to life that you do. You shall not commit adultery because the intimacy of a marriage requires trust and vulnerability and to betray that causes great pain, in addition to financial ruin of the women involved during times not that long past. You shall not steal, because why should you have something that someone else worked hard to achieve? You shall not bear false witness because that causes all kinds of strife and pain in the neighborhood. And don't covet what your neighbor has - it will make you unhappy, and may lead to theft, adultery, murder, etc.
Being freed from slavery to sin and death doesn't mean we can be in a free-for-all. It does mean we can take our eyes off the law, and turn them fully on God - and be at peace in Jesus' great love. That is an explanation I can understand. It means we need to stop looking for the "sin" in other people, too, because they have also received justification (grace) through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It means that while we need to repent for our mistakes and errors, we also can receive God's grace with joy and thanksgiving.
Grace and peace to you, beloved children of God.
P.S. I Googled "Adam and Jesus" to find an image. Most were really violent, or seemed to focus on "the fall." I don't think that is the point at all! God loves us. Jesus was human to bridge the gap between God and humankind. The law is fulfilled and, beloveds, there is no longer a need to be afraid.
"Jesus Christ the Mediator." Image. www.crossroadsinitiative.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Jesus-Christ-the-Mediator-between-God-and-Man-Augustine-1-Gods-Hand-Reaching-for-Man-1844x1024.jpg. Accessed October 21, 2021
Lemmel, Helen H. "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus." 1922. Hymn: Turn your eyes upon Jesus (hymnal.net). Accessed October 21, 2021.