The Strangeness of Sin: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 7 February 2010

Revised Common Lectionary readings for 7 February 2010 (Epiphany, Year C)

Isaiah 6:1-13

Psalm138

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

It’s not hard to affirm or criticize youth ministers’ commonplaces.  I could just as easily agree that, since any imperfection is not perfection, no sin is categorically different from another, yet I’m certain that, given the choice between having an ink pen stolen from my office or being murdered, I would quickly and decisively rank those sins and choose accordingly.  I could agree that Jesus has a plan for my life insofar as I’ve been called to serve the nations as a Christian and to live as part of Church in a particular place, but I also do not spend much time at all agonizing about whether choices between morally acceptable alternatives (Do I take the job or wait for another?  Do I teach the teens or help with the young kids on Wednesday nights?) are in line with “God’s will.”  In other words, commonplaces become commonplaces because they’re to some extent true, but they remain commonplaces because in any given moment, they’re probably not entirely true.

One of those commonplaces that comes to mind as I read next week’s Sunday lectionary text is that God cannot tolerate (in some versions even be in contact with) sin.  Once again, proceeding logically, if God is perfect, and if the Greek hamartia means a missing of a mark, and if the mark is the standard of perfection in archery, then of course the sentence is true.  But, as this week’s texts indicate, there’s a fair bit of complexity surrounding that simple metaphor.  For Paul, his apostleship has missed a mark not because he didn’t travel with the historical person Jesus of Nazareth–his mystical encounter with Christ on the Damascus road was perfectly adequate, thank you–he does grant that his persecution of the Church has sullied his claim to apostolicity.  And when Isaiah cries out that his own unclean lips have undone him, he cries out knowing that, whatever else is happening in that fantastic temple vision, God has already reached out to him in his prior sinfulness.  (I won’t even start to speculate about the implications of Isaiah’s sin being “blotted out” (6:7) by means of a mystical coal.)  But when Peter encounters the power of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s hard to deny that “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”  Here a mortal man, the image of God to be sure but nonetheless a man, who was born after generations of Abraham’s seed have come and gone, located in one place, becomes for Peter the very person of God.  (He hadn’t read much systematic Christian theology, I’m going to speculate, so the irony probably escaped him.)  In this moment of power and spectacle and fish, Peter knows by some means and on some level that, like Isaiah, he has been undone.

I’ve long since given up trying to define evil and sin positively–I’m inclined to go with Augustine and Boethius and start any conversation about them by stating what they’re not, what they lack.  I think that folks who discount that privative character of sin and evil are missing or at least diminishing the priority of goodness, whether the goodness that is God’s essence (though known to mortals only by analogy), the goodness of creation and the very-goodness of the human body, or the goodness that lies, warped and corrupted, at the heart of every sinful act, thought, and moment.  To say that every evil has good at its heart is, of course, another commonplace that runs the risk of trivializing the harm that evil acts can inflict, but at the end of the day I’m willing to embrace that particular commonplace, first because it has at its heart the logical possibility that God might love sinners and second because it allows for moments like Paul’s and Isaiah’s and Peter’s, moments when we realize that fallenness is logically posterior to the goodness that might have been and logically prior to the forgiveness that God offers to Israel and, through the death and resurrection of Christ, to the world.

May we Christians learn the good so that we can preach the horror of sin and proclaim boldly the glory of salvation.

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