What is sin? Jesus says that heaven goes bonkers every time a sinner repents, but what is sin that one can repent of it? If we turn to our Second Reading, we’re told that God forgave Paul for persecuting and murdering Christians because Paul “acted ignorantly and in unbelief.” This seems to suggest that maybe had Paul acted knowingly God would not have forgiven him, or that had Paul known better he would not have sinned. We can turn to the Greek original, but that makes things more difficult. It could say, “I received mercy because I acted ignorantly and in unbelief,” or, “I received mercy that I had acted ignorantly and in unbelief.” Most prefer the former. This concept of sin as acting from ignorance influences us every day.
It comes to perhaps its sharpest expression in the philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes writes in his Meditations on First Philosophy, “What is the source of my errors? They are owing simply to the fact that, since the will extends further than the intellect, I… extend [the will] to things I do not understand… and in this way I am deceived and in sin.” Most of us do not have Descartes on our nightstand, and depending on what kind of education we received we may never have read him. His thoughts still influence us. I’ve heard plenty of devout lifelong Lutherans explain that God gave us free will and an intellect and that we need to get our intellect in line with the will so that we don’t sin. And Descartes’ work goes way beyond our notions of sin. He fueled the Enlightenment and made modernity possible. We would not have the world we have today had it not been for him.
Let’s take a look at that world. It is a world where one missing sheep out of a hundred would be considered acceptable loss, or a lost drachma (like $20) would be considered an annoyance but hardly worth ripping apart the house to find it. Now, substitute “people” for sheep, or “refugees” for drachmas. Still no big deal? Apparently. We live in a world full of what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “wasted humans,” excess population we cannot manage or employ. The economy has reached a level of automation and production whereby it simply does not require as many people as there are. So we’ve got a million refugees from a civil war in the Central African Republic; two million refugees from a civil war that broke out the moment South Sudan became a country; nearly two million refugees from eastern Ukraine; and oh yeah all the refugees of ISIS, the Taliban, and the Syrian Civil War. And that’s not counting our own unemployed. And the fact is, we really don’t need any of them to do anything. Their removal from the global political economy would have no negative impact on you or me, and may even have a positive economic impact on you and me.
That’s our world. None of us can claim complete ignorance of it. And we do little or nothing about it. This is sin, and it is way beyond Descartes’ tidy little definition of it. The economy that produces “wasted humans” does so with everyone knowing it. We know it happens. We keep going. Our will is not exceeding our intellect…and it is pretty damned sinful. That Cartesian definition of Sin cannot explain this.
If you’re looking for definitions of sin, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I don’t think we’ve improved upon the one in the Augsburg Confession. Sin is the lack of trust and fear of God, and the presence of what medieval theologians called concupiscence—think of it as your reptilian brain and its basic survival instincts being in complete control of all you do. We have within us the drive to survive, which is great because it tells us to eat, drink, sleep, procreate, and avoid packs of wolves. When that drive gets in control of our higher functions, we don’t just survive; we’re clever creatures: we destroy. Our need for food or shelter becomes our demanding all the food and shelter, which becomes millions of wasted humans. This is Sin on a massive scale, so massive that our knowledge of it makes it seem inevitable, makes resistance seem futile.
It’s like the sin of nearly two million Israelites at Sinai. What happens? God hears their cries in Egypt, so in order to free them God turns the Nile to blood, sends frogs, gnats, flies, diseases to livestock, boils to humans, thunder and hail, locusts, darkness, and death to the firstborn of Egypt. God protects Israel and shuffles them out of Egypt, parts the Red Sea, drowns the pursuing army, feeds two million people in the desert, and brings them to Sinai, and tells them, “You’ve had a busy month. Moses and I need to go talk for 40 days. So relax.” And what does Israel do? They immediately melt their jewelry and cast a solid golf calf. They say that the calf—the god Baal—did all the stuff God did. This is sin so massive that no one person can stop it. It seems inevitable. And God’s wrath seems inevitable.
What is amazing is that God forgives them.
Why does God forgive them? Moses appeals to God’s honor. Today the buzzword is “optics.” (Optics doesn’t mean what we all pretend it means, but whatever.) Moses says, “God, I want you to think about the optics. How would it look if you did all of this great stuff only to kill your people?” And God agrees. “It would look really bad; so I’m gonna make it look really good.” The whole world will know that God is God, not because of the Exodus, but because of forgiveness. Real power, real glory, real divinity is forgiving sin. God makes God known by forgiving.
God makes God known by forgiving Paul. I mentioned earlier the difficulty: is Paul forgiven because of his actions or is he forgiven that he did them? Well, yes. Paul is forgiven for his actions, which are terrible. By Paul’s own account his mission in life was the violent destruction of Christians. God forgives all of that. Why? Because precisely by forgiving it, God can make God known! “Oh! You think Paul is bad? I can forgive him! Top that!” Forgiveness changes Paul. Paul becomes a means by which God makes God known. Paul, who wished violently to destroy Christ, now makes new Christians. He goes straight to those he was hurting and helps them. When authorities react violently, he refuses to return violence. In God’s hands, he becomes part of God’s solution to the very problem of which Paul was a part.
Today, God makes God known by offering to forgive us for our wasting of human beings. Our place in the web of human sinfulness is no better or worse than that of people in previous generations or of those who will follow us. It simply is, and God forgives it. God forgives murderous Paul and God forgives massively sinful Israel and God forgives us. God says, “Oh! You think tens of millions of war refugees, tens of millions of more economic refugees, the unemployed and underemployed is bad? Yeah, it is. I forgive you. Top that!” And forgiveness will work its change on us. By the grace of God, we may work to be a people who minister to those whom we have wasted. By the grace of God we become people who seek out the lost sheep and the lost coin that the world says are acceptable losses. In God’s hands we may become part of God’s solution to the problem. Maybe it’s by helping the impoverished, perhaps through Lutheran World Relief. Maybe it’s giving shelter to refugees, perhaps through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Maybe it’s advocacy with the state, or covenanting locally to make more sustainable economic choices. These things may not sound “churchy,” but Jesus insists the angels throw parties over stuff like this.
This may not have been at the forefront of our minds today. It is the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Those of us alive then can tell you where we were and what happened. The story today is likely not about our need for forgiveness. God knows none of us attacked anyone, and some of us may have known people who were killed or who lost someone that day. The question, asked by all of today’s readings, is, “How would God make God known?” How would God make God known in something like 9/11? God has this habit of forgiving really massive sins. Forgiving Israel for massive (and truly baffling) disobedience. Forgiving Paul for his killings in the name of God. I’ve got to think that God’s offer of forgiveness extends here, too. And I cannot top that. That is some serious divine power.
And if God can offer to forgive that (and I think God does), then the forgiveness God offers us for our role in wasting humans is some potent stuff. Sin is not inevitable. God is going to be able to do something through us.