Sin and sins

Sunday 5th April 2020
Year A, Palm Sunday
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Lamentations 3.19-33
Matthew 20.17-34

I've just been reading a very remarkable book from last year's Booker shortlist; it's Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport, consisting of one sentence over a thousand pages, each page a paragraphless block of print, recording the stream of consciousness of a middle aged woman from Ohio who feels guilty about things she can affect directly, like the upbringing of her children, things she can do little about except campaign and vote, like the environment, the maltreatment of animals, gun violence, corruption and President Trump; but she is also ridden with guilt about things she can do nothing about such as the historic massacre of Indians and the way she treated her now dead mother. And what struck me more than anything else was the utterly corrosive nature of guilt. This woman is doing her very best for everything and everyone but her whole life is terribly corroded. The root of her problem is that she is incapable of drawing lines and is a slave to the myth of perfection.

Christians, on the other hand, are slaves to the myth of imperfection. Following in the footsteps of Plato, Saint Augustine and Martin Luther, we have been brought up to believe that humanity is fundamentally corrupt without ever going on to draw the logical conclusion that if we were created corrupt then it's hardly our own fault. So we come to the illogical conclusion that what defines us, what makes us what we are, is our sinfulness from which we can only escape by having faith in Jesus, a point emphasised by Martin Luther through his reading of Saint Paul's notoriously complex Letter to the Romans, particularly Chapter 3 Verses 21-26 which Luther and many Biblical translators, understood to mean that we were justified by our faith in Jesus. The Roman Catholic authorities at the time of the Reformation were inclined to exaggerate the distinction Luther was making between our faithfulness to Jesus and our daily conduct but they were right to this degree: the symbiosis of faith and conduct was wrecked.

Recently, however, three very interesting Biblical translators and theologians, Douglas A Campbell, NT Wright and Steve Chalke, have reached a diametrically opposite understanding of Romans 3.21-26, namely that we are justified by the faithfulness of Jesus to us, not the other way round, and we immediately see that this accords with our passage from Lamentations which dwells on the faithfulness of God to his people. No matter how bad things are, God will see his people right. And he did, in the person of Jesus, who came to remit the sin of the Chosen People to put them back in a right relationship with God. And that's the first important thing to remember: the primary purpose of the Crucifixion was to fulfil the Jewish Scriptures by saving the Chosen People from their sin, with those who subsequently followed him as, if you like, salvific collateral beneficiaries which was, incidentally, the whole point of Paul's letter to the Romans.

The Gospel passage from Matthew is slightly suspicious in its detail about the way Jesus says he will die, citing the two-stage process of Jewish condemnation and Roman execution, but there is no doubt that Jesus knew that he was becoming so offensive to the religious authorities that he was almost certain to die for his beliefs. And here's the second important point: the two critical beliefs he wanted his listeners to hang onto were their belief in him as their saviour and their obligation to forgive sins. So although his death would save Israel from its sin, it was for the people to become involved in the mutual forgiveness of sins, rather than relying on Temple tariffs. There is, then, a radical distinction between the created imperfection of Sin which the death of Jesus put right and the wilful commission of sins which the death of Jesus also put right; but the third important point is that the collective imperfection of creation is a far more important subject of salvation than individual sins, not least because our greatest failure is collective omission.

And here we come back to the paradoxical avowal of our created imperfection and our religiously endowed sense of guilt: we all believe, or at least should believe, that when we commit sins of omission or commission we are not only going against God's will for us but we are also going against our own nature. Saint Augustine, following Plato, said we are all fundamentally corrupt but, Diametrically opposed to Plato was his pupil Aristotle, the foundational philosopher for Saint Thomas Aquinas, who said that the purpose of life was to live virtuously, emphasising our positive role rather than condemning us to being hopelessly negative.

This is a rather dense way of saying that on this Passion Sunday we should try to set aside our personal entanglements in wrong choices and focus on the big picture, that Jesus came to earth as God in time as an equal partner with God out of time in order to spare us from the death which came with our created imperfection. Just why God out of time should have created us as imperfect so that God in history could die to put things right is the central mystery of Christianity which an exclusive emphasis on personal sin obscures.

The Gospel goes on, after Jesus' warning, to show how his chief Disciples were obsessed with their place in the Kingdom and this is followed by a deliberate story about the curing of the blind. We have been saved from the consequences of sin and should therefore lead our lives, collectively and individually, in a constructive manner, which our Scriptures call love, not worrying about our place in the Kingdom but trusting that God will see us right as he has promised.

The fundamental attribute of humanity is that we are social and mutually dependent; the notion that we are fundamentally selfish and competitive is based not only on a severely damaged reading of Scripture but it is also based on a materialist view which says that our selfish DNA is all we have. It is not. We have been given power to overcome DNA and live for god and each other; that is what Jesus tells us; that is what the Cross tells us; that is what we must tell ourselves and each other.