Monday, April 13, 2015

Easter Repentance

Three ministers get together for lunch.  “What do want to talk about today?” one asks.  “I know,” says another, “Why don’t we each confess a secret sin!”  So the first minister says, “My secret sin is my church members think I pray for them all the time, but I don’t.”  The second minister says, “My secret sin is that I haven’t written a sermon in years.  I download them off the internet.”  The third minister, the one who suggested the conversation topic in the first place, says, “My secret sin is I love to gossip and I can’t wait until this lunch is over!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy Lent, but it is always wonderful to be on this side of Easter.  There is so much going on in Lent.  One week I was not home for dinner a single night.  I can’t describe for you the pleasure it has been this past week to make a meal for myself every evening.

Well, in addition to the schedule letting up, Easter season also brings the welcome relief of new and more joyful themes.  One can only take so much penitence.  I enjoyed the midweek Lenten community services and hearing other ministers preach, but there was so much focus on sin.  One pastor said the word sin so much that halfway through his fifteen-minute sermon I decided to start counting.  In the final seven minutes he said sin eighteen times.  That is two and half times a minute.  Good riddance to that and Welcome Happy Morning, right?

So what is up with these readings today? 

· “If we say that we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not know what is true.”

· “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

· “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Jesus a liar, and his word is not in us.”

· Jesus said to the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

[heavy sigh]  Well, I guess it is back to Lent – part 2.

A few years ago, Gary Anderson, an Old Testament scholar, wrote a book on the history of sin, examining how metaphors about it change in the bible.  He notes that early on sin is thought of as being a weight or a burden.

In the Book of Genesis, after Cain kills his brother, he says, “the weight of my sin is too great for me to bear” (4:13)[1].  When Cain first protests that he is not is brother’s keeper, he has yet to feel the weight of his crime.  But once God imposes the severe penalty he is overcome by a tremendous burden and begins to grapple with the terrible nature of his offense.

The Day of Atonement is first described in the 16th chapter of Leviticus.  Here, God instructs the people of Israel to load their sins on the back of a pack animal – a scapegoat – and to drive it into the wilderness.  If you experience your sins as a weight, what better way is there to deal with it than finding an animal to carry them away!

According to Anderson, almost 90% of the Old Testament describes sin as being a weight or burden up until the end of the Exile in the 5th century BC when the metaphor shifts to the notion of debt.  It becomes the dominant motif by Jesus’ day and this sheds light on why he speaks about debtors and creditors.  Think of the parable where a servant begs forgiveness for an exorbitant debt and receives remission only to turn around and refuse to forgiven the much smaller debt another owes to him. 

Along with this idea of sin as debt, there emerges the thought that good deeds create a credit.   If sin is a debt, that means you owe money.  And if virtuous activity is going to be a credit, the most obvious way to accumulate it is by giving away money through almsgiving.  Jesus himself implores his followers to build up treasures in heaven.  The Church continued to develop this notion and it became a seminal issue during the Reformation – Roman Catholics holding that indulgences relieve debts as opposed to Protestants who believe that the debt for sin is so great it cannot be repaid except by Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.

The bible uses other metaphors to describe sin. 

· It is described as being a stain.  The prophet Isaiah says to the people of Israel, “Your sins are like scarlet”.  Redemption, using this metaphor, is a cleansing or a washing.

· Sin is described as the posture of crouching, like a lion waiting to pounce and devour.

· It is compared to leprosy because it makes a person unclean before God.

· Paul writes about being a slave to sin.  It becomes one’s master in a way similar to how addiction controls of a person.

· Sin is thought of as a blemish, a mark or imperfection of the image of God in which we are created.

· It is described as missing the mark like when you shoot an arrow and fail to hit the target.  It describes the common experience of having good intentions, but failing to meet them.

· Sin is compared to crookedness.  Words like perversion and depravity describe how sin twists and distorts a person’s life. 

· Sin is thought of as rebellion, a violent resistance to God’s authority.

· Lawlessness is another metaphor sin.  Paul wrote that God’s laws are written on the human heart, but that we willfully disregard them.

· Sin is described as trespassing, as in offending another, overstepping, neglecting, or violating a boundary.

· And finally, sin is compared to brokenness.  You cannot sit on a broken chair because it can no longer perform its proper function.  Sinners are broken people, unable to live in communion with God.

Well, so far, by my count, I have said the word sin, sins, and sinner thirty-five times.  That is an impressive number for an Episcopal priest.  But, still, people… it is the Easter season.  Why in the world of the Resurrection are we talking about sin?

Well, I think the answer to this question involves the Resurrection.  You see, in Lent, we attack our sinfulness as an obligation or a duty.  I will give up something that is dragging me down because I am supposed to do so.  But the Resurrection discussion of sin is framed in an entirely different context.  Rather than being about should and must, Easter repentance is about desire; about the desire for a new life. 

You see, once we look in the Resurrected eyes of our Lord we have a new vision for life, for our life.  If Lent is like looking at your sinful life and taking one step back from it and then another and another, Easter is like turning from sin (what John describes as darkness) and looking at Jesus (what he refers to as light).  The Easter presence of our Lord has an amazing power to draw us toward a new and glorious life.  Whereas a Lenten discipline calls upon us to forsake our sins, Easter life invites us to move toward the true life we see lived by Jesus. 

Allow me, humbly, to use myself as a shining example. 

In Lent, I gave up sweets, among other things.  Like many Lenten disciplines it was an attempted to reign in an aspect of my life that was out of control.  I still see it.  I realize it is there.  I work hard to keep a distance from it.  But now, in Easter, I have a vision of new life; of what life can be like for me.  I have put on a lot of weight over the past few years and it takes a toll on me.  My bones ache and I lack energy.  I have decided to make some serious adjustments to my diet – not out of a Lenten sense of should, but out of an Easter sense of can. 

Why are we talking about sin in Easter?  I am convinced the reason is because the motivation has changed.  We have moved from should to can, from demand to invitation, from law to grace, from darkness to light, from duty to desire.   We are invited to take into ourselves not the power of the law, which condemns, but the Spirit of grace and power that raised Jesus from the dead. 

Today, this morning, in the name of the Risen Christ, I invite you to turn from the dark places in your life and walk toward the Light into new life.

[1] Some translations use the word punishment rather than weight, but Anderson, who is fluent in Hebrew, says this is not correct and that the mistranslation changes the focus from the act to the punishment.