Originally posted April 23, 2012, at The Altar Ego. Republished with permission of the author.
One of the interesting side notes of being a pastor in a small town is that everywhere I go, there are people who know me (cue Ron Burgundy quote now). And, more often than you’d think, I get some variation of this: “Uh oh, here comes the pastor. I’m sorry, I have too many sins to confess.”
Some of the time, this is said in jest, but other times it’s dead serious. It seems as though they honestly believe that (a) not only do I frequently go out into the community to figure out who has sinned, and to either guilt or shame them, but that (b) they have too many sins to count, and are, therefore, beyond any sense of forgiveness.
What hits me about these encounters is the completely one-sided view of sin. In the words of a Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who wins the award for best blog name, “Sarcastic Lutheran”:
“So one end of the church tells us that sin is an antiquated notion that only makes us feel bad about ourselves so we should avoid mentioning it at all. While the other end of the church tells us that sin is the same as immorality and totally avoidable if you are just a good squeaky clean Christian. But when sin is boiled down to low self-esteem and immorality then it becomes something we can control or limit in some way rather than something we are in bondage to. The reality is that I cannot free myself from the bondage of self.”
Squeaky clean Christian. That’s precisely what we try to be, and what is ultimately behind the comments (joking or otherwise) that I hear. If only we could sin less, we think. People often see the church (e.g., pastors), and immediately apologize for sinning too much.
They’re sorry that they aren’t better. But sin is so much more of an identity we can’t control. This is not to go all Jonathan Edwards and remind ourselves that we are wretched sinners in the hands of a ticked-off God, on the edge of hell itself — it is rather, for me, to focus on the fact that our sin isn’t something we can individually check off nice and neat on our spiritual sticky-notes, and, therefore, endlessly work to be “better” or rather, just better than other Christians.
Sin doesn’t exist just because you did something you probably shouldn’t have done. It’s not simply individual choices.
Sin isn’t a condemnation; it’s a reality. It’s communal and systemic. It’s in the reality of people starving to death while others throw food away. It’s in the places where people die from preventable diseases simply because they were born in Darfur — or Detroit.
That’s why the hope offered in the God-drenched grace of this Easter season is that much more overwhelmingly powerful and startlingly challenging.
What if we recognized the part we play in sin that goes beyond what words we shouldn’t have said or thoughts we should have suppressed — and extends to the communal and systemic sin that plagues our world?
If nothing else, I think we’d be in good company.
Find a link to Jason Chesnut’s blog The Altar Ego at Lutheran Blogs.