Reframing Sin and Repentance

(The Reader’s Digest version of my sermon from April 28)

There is a Buddhist quip that says, “You Christians must be very bad people – you’re always confessing your sins.” Apparently, the Christian preoccupation with sin is obvious, and I, for one, believe this emphasis on sin is unnecessary and harmful.

The three words in scripture that are translated as “sin” are used over 1,000 times. It’s a big deal. But remember that in the ancient world they believed in a cause and effect God. Everything they did or didn’t do caused God to do or not do something. If they wanted life to go smoothly for themselves and their family and community, they better make sure they are following the laws – AKA not sinning. This held true in New Testament times as well. Sin was a big deal.

The concept of “original sin” proposed (and widely accepted for centuries now) by Augustine in the 4th century perpetuated the emphasis on sin. Original sin took the story of Adam and Eve literally and declared that because they made that first mistake by eating the forbidden fruit thereby disobeying God, all humanity ever since has been born with the stain of their sin. All people were born inherently bad and in need of forgiveness.

Because of this horrible theology, if you were brought up in a more conservative or fundamental church, chances are that you made some sort of confession of your sins each week during worship. If you were brought up Catholic, you had the dreaded confessional box where you were required to confess all the ways you’d messed up in your life to a priest, who would allot your punishment (or is that atonement?) of a certain number Hail Marys and Our Fathers, before you received the Eucharist (communion elements to us Protestants). Even the United Methodist communion liturgy, which I more-or-less followed for 14 years, included a confession of sin and assurance of pardon. Honestly, I have never appreciated that and no longer include that in our services. I don’t remember Jesus asking anyone to confess anything before he broke bread with them.

All of the above is just plain depressing. Now, trust me, I’m not saying there is no such thing as sin. BUT I firmly believe that the emphasis on it is wrong. Why? Because, first of all, I don’t believe most of us need help feeling bad for the ways we’ve fallen short. We are adept at self-deprecation without the church stepping in to help. Second, because in my opinion, sin has been used to beat people over the head, keep them in submission and keep them coming to church. It feels like there is almost an attempt to keep us in a place of brokenness, to destroy our self-esteem, and to keep us feeling like miserable, rotten sinners instead of setting us free. Shouldn’t the church  be about building people up and setting them free to live joyful, abundant lives instead of tearing them down?

Can you imagine if we treated our kids the same way some of the churches treat people? What if every morning when our kids woke up we reminded them of all the things they did wrong, told them that they were born bad and made them ask for forgiveness? The whole concept makes me crazy. But many churches have essentially does the same thing by requiring confession at each and every worship service. And the fact that some churches require young kids to learn to confess how bad they’ve been before they can share in a meal that was given in love by Jesus just turns my stomach.  What if, instead, we told our kids each morning that they were created beautiful, unique and loving? What if, at church we reminded people that their souls are the essence of God’s love and goodness?

OK… so where do we go with this? First, there is a huge part of sin that, as progressive Christians we need to just let go of. The story of Adam and Eve was a myth to help people understand who they were and where they came from. It was never intended to be taken literally. Original sin is abusive theology which keeps us bound to a belief that we are bad. Let me be clear – we were not born bad. We were born as a unique expression of the divine in all its diversity. Jesus did not die for our sins. Without an understanding of ourselves as inherently sinful  and without a belief that our personal sin helped nail Jesus to the cross, there is no need for a constant emphasis on sin.

Next, let’s broaden our understanding of sin. In Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, he draws the analogy between finding the lost item with a repentant sinner (Luke 15:1-10). It is about being lost and found. Theologian Paul Tillich talks about sin as “separation from God.” Being lost, separating ourselves or becoming separated from God in some way. But wouldn’t it be better to use the names or words for those ways instead of lumping them all into the one dreaded word “SIN”?

I and many, many other theologians and religions see the spiritual path as the path back to our authentic selves which is connected intimately with our Source. But there are many obstacles on the path which contribute to our separation from God. We get caught up in the material world and look for fulfillment and purpose in all the wrong places. We get burned by the church and decide there is no God. We get hurt by others and become too broken to want to delve into the depths of our souls for fear of what we might find in the darkness… yet going through that darkness is the only way to find God. We make bad choices or hurt others and our guilt and shame blocks us.

All of these things can separate us from God, but I would not call them “sin”. We are lost, broken, exiled, confused, estranged, questioning, and searching.

When push comes to shove, what do I actually label as sin? Honestly, nothing, because I can’t stand the word. The closest I might come would be doing something illegal or harmful to another… but those stem from being broken, lost, hurt, confused and separated from one’s True Self and God. If you want to call yourself a sinner, that’s up to you, but don’t expect it to come from me.

Having said that, I may not preach about SIN, but I constantly talk about the other things that block our spiritual paths and so work toward healing and wholeness (remember, we reframed salvation as this last week – see previous blog if you need a refresher).

So… what about repentance? Most people think of punishment, contrition, and asking for forgiveness when they hear the word repentance. If sin is about being separated from God and Self, then repentance is about ways to find God and Self.

Interestingly, we’ve mostly lost the original meaning of the word as written in Scripture. In the Old Testament, “repentance” in Hebrew essentially means “to return to God.” Again, it is about being lost to God in some way and needing to get back. It is the very basis of the spiritual journey… finding our way home to God, who is IN us.

In the New Testament, repentance continues to have the same meaning, but the Greek roots of the word add the additional nuance: “go beyond the mind you have.”  In other words, what you’ve been doing isn’t working, isn’t bringing you to healing and wholeness, isn’t reconnecting you to God and Self… go beyond the mind you have, seek a higher mind, a higher path.

Repentance is the way of transformation, the path of reconnecting with your Self and God, the way of salvation – healing and wholeness, the way of new life.

So, yes, as Luke 15:7 says, I believe that there is “joy in heaven over one repentant sinner.” When one lost, hurting, broken person has gone beyond the mind they have and returned to their core, their Source, themselves, it is cause for celebration.

Peace, Kaye