God’s Attitude towards Sin

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Today’s scriptures ask us to prepare ourselves for the coming of God. They invite us to make ready, to “take off sorrow and affliction,” and to “put on righteousness.” We are invited to a way of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Repent so that sins are forgiven.” Those are words that sound familiar for church, but what do they mean, really?

At some level, it’s all clear enough, probably. Just like when we were children, if we took something that didn’t belong to us, or hit a sibling or playmate, or acted out in some way, our parents taught us what it is like to say we’re sorry. The saying of “sorry” opened up a door to forgiveness, and restoring the relationship. We could play again with our friend, we could feel again the closeness and warmth of the love of the parent. But as we grow older, sin becomes a little more confusing sometimes.

How do we repent when we’re not even sure if we have sinned? How do we know if something is our fault, or the fault of someone or something beyond us? How do we know God is listening, when we say we’re sorry? What does forgiveness feel like?

Especially in our culture, I think we’ve inherited a combination of attitudes around sin. Some would simply dismiss any talk of “sin” as something outdated and leftover from a time when the church used superstition and power to rule over the lives of the faithful. While most people probably wouldn’t articulate it quite that way, it’s part of how they feel. And so, not much time would be given to thinking about sin, or about doing anything about it.

But for people who are at some level involved with God, people who seek to be in relationship with God, people who want to follow the way of Jesus Christ, one of two attitudes toward sin often prevails. The first attitude toward sin is one that is intensely personal. The belief is that God has shown us what God expects of us, through the 10 Commandments and other laws, through the life of Jesus Christ, through the preaching of the apostles, and through the teaching of the Church. So, when we break a rule, it’s our fault, it’s the fault of the individual. It’s that person, (my responsibility, then) to approach God and ask for forgiveness.

This can happen through silent confession (me and God), or might happen through the church’s sacrament of reconciliation (whether using an old fashioned confessional, or sitting aside a priest in the chapel). Much has been made in our country, especially, about personal religion, personal faith, personal responsibility.

And yet, some have pointed out that there is no such thing as an individual Christian. To be a Christian is to be a person of faith in community, and so everything about the living out of our faith involves other people.

An extreme approach to this is in a second attitude toward sin, and that’s to view sin as primarily communal or social. When we see a tragedy on the news of a person who goes on a shooting rampage, there’s much of our culture that pushes us to begin to think about the societal forces that might have moved the person to do such an awful thing. We don’t say “that person has a demon,” but rather, “that person must have grown up in a bad family, or not had good options, or must have been driven to do such evil.”

When we begin to think about sin, and about repenting from sin, and turning toward God, how do we balance these two dynamics, the personal and the communal? John the Baptist quoted Isaiah by saying, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” Sin is, indeed, personal, but it has communal effects. In the name way, when I repent and am restored to new fellowship with God, that also brings with it a restoration to right relationship with other people. It makes the way not only for justice, but it also makes the way for peace.

One of the best images for dealing with sin, for me, comes from the 14th century holy woman, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). When she was 30 years old, Julian almost died from a fever or some other ailment, and while she was sick, she received a vision from God. She wrote down her vision, but continued to pray to God for more insight. Twenty years later, she wrote down an extended version of the vision.

In her vision of the Lord and Servant Julian sees a great Lord who has a devoted servant. The Lord sends the servant off on some errand, and the servant is excited to do it. But then the servant falls into a ditch. And the servant “is greatly injured” as Julian writes.

[The servant] groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but cannot rise to help himself in any way . . . And all this time his loving lord looks on him most tenderly . . .with great compassion and joy.” She explains that the servant “was diverted from looking on his lord, but his will was preserved in God’s sight. I saw the lord commend and approve him for his will, but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. And this is a great sorrow and a cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving lord, who is so meek and mild to him, nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord.

Sin can be painful. When we’ve fallen into the ditch and we can’t see out, and we feel cut off and alone, it can feel like death… but if we remember that God is watching, God is smiling at us, encouraging us to get out of the ditch. Sometimes we need a boost, and we ask for others to help us. Sometimes, we simply need to do some climbing, get dirty, use our spiritual and physical muscles and simply get up and out. It is the work of spiritual discernment for us to learn to know what is needed to get out of the ditch. God gives us the church for help, the Bible for help, the saints and tradition, and God gives us one another.

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent has us ask God that we might be given the grace to heed the warnings of the prophets “and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”

May that be our prayer this season and always.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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