January 12, 2020
What is sin and what is not? There are so many ways we can talk about sin:
Sin as breaking God’s law
Sin as separation from God
Sin as disobeying God
Sin as missing the mark of righteousness
All of these fit with the biblical account of what sin is, but ultimately, each of them falls short. For example, take sin as breaking God’s law. Many Christians proclaim that they have reached sanctification because they don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex outside marriage. But what about speaking harshly to your family or friends? What about failing to trust God in difficult circumstances?
When we think of sin as simply breaking God’s law, it becomes very easy to become a box-checker—that is, I don’t do this, don’t do that, ok, so I must not be sinning! It becomes very, very easy to become self-righteous and to develop blind spots towards our own failings, and ways in which we’re falling short of God’s will for us.
The biggest problem with seeing our sin or our righteousness as a checklist is that it misses the whole point. The way Jesus and Paul describe sin is very different. Sin, just like salvation, isn’t about rules, it’s about relationship. It’s about what’s in our hearts and how we’re leaning towards God and growing in relationship with Him—or, not.
Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
So there are different interpretations of what this passage was about; it might have had to do with eating meat offered to idols, or eating non-kosher meals, or another division between vegetarian Christians and meat-eaters. Ultimately, the specific issue is beside the point. You could put in this passage any action that to some Christians is part of their faith practice, but to others is unnecessary, and has biblical support either way. For example, some Christians include Ash Wednesday and Lent as part of their observance; others do not. Some Christians say grace before every meal; others do not.
So is it sin to skip Lent? Is it sin to observe Lent? Is it a sin to skip grace? Paul comes up with a very surprising answer: it depends on the heart of the believer.
Romans 14:22-23: o whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
Everything that does not come from faith is sin. If you go against your own conscience and knowingly do so, then your action becomes a sin—even if it’s not clear from the biblical text that it’s sinful! With God, it’s the thought that counts.
Again, note that this kind of sin is nothing that can be checked on a box. How could we even come up with the myriad ways in which a Christian can go against his own conscience? But what Paul is saying is that if you have a spiritual practice which is not overtly sinful—such as abstaining from meat, observing a holy day, or abstaining from alcohol—and you deliberately disobey that spiritual practice, going against your own faith and your own conscience, that has become sin. How could this be? Only if it’s about a relationship, not about rules.
The practices that help your faith to grow are holy; all practices that do not come from faith are ultimately sinful. Consider raising children. A parent once said to me, “I’ve just got to get my kids out of the house, graduated from college, and married off. Then, my work will be done.”
Anybody here have kids out of the house, graduated from college, and married off? Is your work done? Of course not. Your kids will continue to be in relationship with you—and relationships, even the best of relationships, take work. It’s the same way with God. We don’t get saved, get sanctified, and then wash our hands and say, well, my soul is taken care of. Instead, we’re called to grow in our faith and our journey toward holiness.
In the 1980s, James Fowler tried to apply what we know about psychology to the journey of faith.
The first stage, the primal stage, is our infancy, when we begin to experience God through the love of our parents. The next stage is the intuitive-projective stage of faith, where Preschool-aged children tell stories about God in the same way they would tell stories about Spider-Man or the Power Rangers. At about age seven, older children can intuit what is right and wrong in a deeper sense, and understand something as being wrong even if they don’t get punished for it. They understand God as an arbiter of right and wrong, kind of like a benevolent judge in the sky. Stage three is deciding a belief system for oneself; identifying as a Christian, taking on that identity and ascribing to its doctrines. And quite frankly, many, perhaps most, adults don’t get beyond this kind of understanding.
If you had a good confirmation course, you probably made it to the fourth stage, individual-reflective. This is where you ask the difficult questions about faith, about suffering and contradictions and how reason interacts with belief. It’s when we progress past easy answers to a more nuanced understanding. It’s at this stage that many people abandon faith in God altogether and choose atheism or nothingism—without realizing, I would argue, that even those belief systems contain their own problems and contradictions. And then we come to stage five, which is where I would say I am and most churchgoing adults find themselves. It’s when you can consider faith questions and even talk about your doubts and fears without questioning your entire belief system. When difficulties land in your way, you are not surprised and suffering will pain you and even cause you to doubt, but ultimately you will say, “it is well with my soul.” The sixth stage Fowler identified was one that he maintained very few people ever reach, and when they do, we have generally heard their names: people like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa. In this stage, you view yourself and your life entirely from the point of view of the divine. You take risks and make choices others never would on account of your faith. Your words inspire others to similar acts of self-denial and worship. Your life has become, as it were, a living hymn to the glory of God.
What would Paul have to say about Fowler’s stages? I think he would say it’s not so much about reaching the top as about trusting God at every stage.
Romans 14: 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.
Romans 14:19-21 : Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
In my view, what Paul is saying is that every stage of our faith journey there’s a path towards God and away from God. If a young child believes he must pray with his eyes closed or he’s going against Jesus and he opens his eyes during prayer, that’s a sin for him, because he’s intentionally moving away from faith. It’s about integrity at every stage, living by your conscience. Integrity is a word that means being whole, being one person whose actions are in line with your beliefs—and whether those beliefs are sophisticated or unsophisticated doesn’t matter so much. It’s not about whether you’re strong or you’re weak, it’s about whether you are whole, because anything that does not come from faith is sin.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (vs 19)
Peace and mutual edification. In many churches, it’s common practice to withhold the sacraments to children. Baptism, or communion, or both, are withheld until children reach about seven, or else, about thirteen; until they are able to articulate who God is and what they believe.
Taking Paul’s words to heart, I ask you to consider this: what leads to peace and to mutual edification? Is it withholding the water, the bread, and the wine from God’s children? I invite you to disagree with me on this, and let everyone in this church do what his conscience says, by all means. But let me explain why I allow my own children to take communion. I have a cousin with severe intellectual disabilities, who, to my knowledge, has never spoken a single word. Should we forbid her baptism, or not allow her to take communion? I think if all she can understand is that she is being held, receiving food, eating and drinking with people who love her, that is all God needs her to know. If all my children understand of communion is that they are eating and drinking Jesus, that he is with them in this meal and they are with their church family who loves them, then that is enough for me. I would rather not place a stumbling block in front of my children when they ask why they aren’t allowed to take communion.
When your heart leans towards God’s heart, you naturally seek what builds another up. When your heart turns away from God’s, then even your outward faithfulness becomes cruelty to others. So let each of us meet one another with the greatest respect, even and especially when we disagree. Let us support one another as we all seek to serve the God whom none of us, not one, fully understands, thanks be to God! And let all things, every tiny act we do, in church and out there in that big, beautiful, broken world, be done in love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.