A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA, June 14, 2015, Romans 6:1-23
Sometimes little things are powerful—the most dangerous spiders are those little brown recluses. The hottest chili peppers are the tiny Carolina creepers. And the word “sin”—with only three letters—has all kinds of significance for religious people, and those who know religious people.
Problems with “sin”
One of the problems in North American Christianity is that the word sin is used mainly by people on one side of the theological spectrum. It feels like a harsh and finger pointing kind of word. So good peaceable progressives tend to avoid it. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where everybody cedes the meaning of sin to those who do use it in hurtful ways.
We all do know that to call something a sin is to say it’s very bad. It’s like the famous story about President Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s. He was notoriously a man of few words. One Sunday he went to church and later met with some reporters. “What was the sermon about,” he was asked. “It was about sin.” “What did the preacher say about sin?” “He said he was agin it.” … What more is there to say?
Well, a few decades later, the Louvin Brothers, one of the great country music brother singing acts , recorded a song called “Broadminded” that did say a little more: “That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n. I read in my Bible, they shall not enter in. Depart, I never knew you. That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n.” The song goes on to list the really bad sins—to “gamble now and then for pleasure,” to “drink a little whisky to please a friend,” and to go “dancing with friends.”
Of course we can think of even more hurtful ways the label sin is used. If it’s people others want to exclude or silence or marginalize, they can be accused of being sinful, of “living in sin.” One of the reasons this hurtful use of sin language is too bad is that many of us tend to react against using it at all then—and that makes for a challenge when we want to find language to use to talk about things that are genuinely wrong—like war and environmental exploitation and racism. We don’t find it meaningful to say those things are sinful—but we don’t have other words that work, either.
But there is another problem with the way “sin” is used among Christians. If it’s used as a word for the evils of “broadmindedness” or if it’s a word we refuse to use—in both cases we think of “sin” mainly as rule violations or moralistically objectionable behavior. To think of sin in these ways makes it harder to understand one of the Apostle Paul’s use of sin language—and we miss Paul’s helpful contributions to how we might approach life in healing and creative ways. Continue reading