If sinners mean everything and nothing, does it mean anything at all?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Thursday, February 18th: Psalm 25:1-10; Daniel 9:1-14; and 1 John 1:3-10 . I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Pluto was discovered on this day in 1930. For 86 years it was known as a planet. Then that designation was stripped away. Five years ago it was relegated to the status of “Dwarf Planet.” This lasted for all of two years and now it is called a “Plutoid.” There’s a problem though. The new terminology, while accepted formally, is confusing, unpopular and unused. Have you ever heard of a Plutoid before?
The world of experts is not necessarily the world of the rest of us. They can even manufacture their own argot as they speak among themselves, but that doesn’t mean Plutoid means anything to people beyond their circle.
In the circle of religion, we also have our own argot. One of the words we throw around and bounce off the boundaries of our circle is sinner. Just like Plutoid, even the ones who use the word sinner are not exactly sure what it means.
It can even get silly at times. When the Christian church divided in two in 1054, the Western church called the members of the Eastern church sinners and the Eastern church called the members of the Western church sinners. This resulted in the silly notion that everybody was a sinner.
Augustine was a hellion as a youth. Once he accepted the faith, he looked back at his youthful indiscretions and the young Augustine seemed so unfamiliar to him that “St. Augustine” decided his earlier sinfulness was an unavoidable, inherent consequence of his physical nature. It wasn’t really him. It was this “original sin” imposed upon him and everyone else simply by being born. Other church theologians scoffed at the idea, but universal sinfulness was so appealing it won the day and remains in the vocabulary of many within the circle of religion to this day. Morality lifts us above our natural instincts. It cultivates the image of the divine within us. It sets our goals above survival of the fittest. This is not the same as equating our universal physical nature as sinful.
Many Fundamentalists must take literally the number of saved souls throughout human history as a meager 144,000 (Revelation 7:4). I imagine that number may be filled-up already. There are no more vacancies in heaven and they’re not taking reservations.
Followers of Calvin profess a theology of predestination, which Paul espouses in Romans 8. Predestination is thought of as necessary to protect God’s omniscience. God knows if you or I are saved or damned even before we are born, and there’s nothing any of us can do to change that predetermined judgment. This sort of takes the wind out of Lent’s sails. Why bother to grow spiritually during these 40 days when our fate has already been determined?
Sinners abound in the circle of religious talk. And in today’s reading from 1 John we are reminded that we have all sinned and that to think otherwise is impious. It seems quite clear, a truism actually, that we all sin.
But outside of the circle of religion, talk of sinners is Plutoid-like. This may be a consequence of those inside the circle hurling the accusation indiscriminately. When sinfulness is defined as universal, as natural as breathing, when sinfulness is ascribed to anyone who believes a bit differently (I have heard actually of a church that condemns anyone who does not use the King James Bible version.), when sinfulness is predetermined and beyond a person’s control, and when heaven is full anyway, then sinfulness and sinners become Plutoid-like terms.
What Lent asks us to consider is the sinfulness of turning away from Christ, from a Saviour who loves us enough that “the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, cleanses us from all sin.” An awareness of sinfulness should cause a believer to repeat the words of the Psalmist: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God, in you I trust. … Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.”
We have all sinned, but we are not defined by sin. In Jesus' eyes we are not first and foremost sinners. Lent makes this clear by focusing not on our moral lapses, but on the love of Christ expressed painfully-perfect on Golgotha. We have all sinned, this is a banal statement, but Christ’s love for us sinners is extraordinary. Jesus lived and died not just to free us from sin, but because He loves us so amazingly much in spite of our being sinners. Lent asks us to grow more worthy of such a love every day, in every way.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Massachusetts Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.macucc.org/lectionary.
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