I was serving my first church, fresh out of seminary, and still trying to find my groove for my preaching style (something I’m still working on today!). I was hosting a Bible Study class at the parsonage with about 8 church members in attendance. Among the attendees were Jack, the current Board chair, and his wife Sara. Jack and Sara came to the Disciples of Christ from a more literalist and fundamentalist denomination. So, it’s safe to say they were still trying to “figure me out.” 

We were about an hour into the Bible Study when Jack abruptly stood up in the living room, turning a deep shade of red as he did, and began to sharply criticize my preaching style and specifically, message content. His aggressiveness took all of us by surprise as we gave Jack the floor to continue to personally berate me for my sermons. Soon his wife Sara joined in to provide back-up and cover for him. 

The bottom-line of their concern was that I preached too much about “sin.” I was hurting their feelings every Sunday and making them feel bad about themselves because they had a different view of their personal holiness than I apparently had. 

I believe that we are all sinners, and that “sin” is a part of our human nature. Human Beings, among other things, sin. It’s part of being human. No religious conversion or outcome of the cross makes us stop sinning. We can’t stop sinning. But Jesus Christ, through the power of the cross, relieves us of our burden of sin, so that we no longer have to live as sinners in the world, but as people set free from our sin by the power of Jesus Christ on the cross. 

Perhaps your own theology of the cross is like that. Or, perhaps you really haven’t thought that much about it. Jack and Sara’s theology of the cross, as well as many other people, is not like that. They believe that Jesus dying on the cross freed us from being sinful people, so that when we are baptized we no longer have the capacity to sin again. We have stopped being sinners. 

That’s an interesting theology that, once Jack and Sara calmed down that evening in the parsonage, they shared with us. “Why,” Pastor Bob, “do you keep mentioning sin when we are all past that part of our lives and have stopped sinning?” 

Jack and Sara see sin as the evil behavior that results from disobeying God. Sinners do bad things because they do not have God in their heart, or, more specifically, they have not been baptized. Those people go to hell when they die. People who do have God in their hearts, or, more specifically, have been baptized, have stopped being sinners. They go to heaven when they die. 

See how neat and clean that is. Become a Christian and be baptized … and you’re saved. Don’t do that … and you’re not. Jack and Sara are part of a large segment of Christians that come from a fundamentalist theology. Every religion has fundamentalists as part of their membership. They are the ones who believe that they are right in every facet of their religious life and that everyone else is wrong. They are assured of that in their hearts because their own ego demands it to be true. They need to be right because they need to be saved. And they deserve to be saved because they are right. Furthermore, and obviously, everyone who does not believe as they do is wrong. Their ego tells them that it must be that way. 

Not only are all the people of other religions, by definition, damned to hell by this view, but so are the other Christians, like me, who don’t believe the way they do. Fundamentalists end up living in a very small world of people like themselves who condemn to hell most of the people on earth. They are literally creating a living hell without even knowing it! 

As for me, I see no evidence that any fundamentalist theology is correct. I see no evidence for it in the Old Testament, and I certainly do not see any evidence to support it in the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus built a ministry and began to build the Kingdom of God with a band of sinners that were rejected by the fundamentalist Pharisees of the day. After deciding to follow Jesus, the Disciples didn’t stop sinning, but they did stop desiring to sin – which means that they started to desire to do God’s will instead of their own will. 

Sin is part of being human. It’s part of our nature that wants to be right, to be in charge, to be exalted and to be divine. We all have that in us. Sin is NOT our bad behavior. Our bad behavior is a consequence of our sin. Thus, as Jesus would say, it’s not just killing someone that’s a sin; it’s the desire to want to kill someone that’s the real sin. Or again, as Jesus says, it’s not just committing adultery that’s a sin; it’s wanting to commit adultery that’s a sin in your heart. 

Sin is whatever separates us from God’s will. For instance, killing someone comes from the desire to kill someone, which comes from evil thoughts projected on to someone, which comes from a part of the person not connected to God’s will but to their own self-well. God, according to Jesus, wants us to love everyone as He loves us; even our enemies. Our self-will wants to hate our enemies and even at some point, kill them. That’s what humans do, and that’s what they’ve done for thousands of years. 

Jesus came to free us of our desire to sin and to change the world once we follow God’s will instead of our own. We don’t sin against each other before we sin against God. Our first sin is always against God when we decide that our self-will is more important than God’s will. So, you see, we never really stop being sinners until we are no longer human. There is not a day that goes by that we don’t feel a desire to “eat the forbidden fruit” and do something that we know is not God’s will. But that’s the “good news!” Because Jesus came to earth specifically to save humans like us. The cross of Jesus is our saving grace and path to righteousness and eternal life. Even for fundamentalists like Jack and Sara! 

In Chapter 9 of the Book of Acts we are told the story of a man named Saul on his way to Damascus to persecute more of the Jesus followers there. Saul was coming directly from having just overseen the killing of Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus. On the road to Damascus, Saul is interrupted by the voice of Jesus, and it says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks the voice who it is that says this … and the voice says “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” 

You see, though we may harm and even kill others with our bad behavior, our sin is against God. As Christians, whenever we sin, we persecute Jesus. And we almost always hurt other people on the way. Jesus didn’t ask Saul why he killed Stephen … he knew why. He knew Saul was living according to his own will, ego, self-centered fundamentalist nature. But God wanted Saul to know that his bad behavior was first a persecution of Jesus. It starts in our heart, and then becomes who we are and what we do. Jesus wanted Saul to be someone different … so He changed him into Paul. 

Jesus is God’s remedy for our sin. It’s not a cure that turns you into a sinless human being, but it is a remedy for the sin-sickness of our human nature. Even as we persecute Jesus with our sin, He is forgiving us and cleansing us of the stain of sin, and leading us into a new way of life. In that new life, it’s God’s will that matters most to us, even when we fall a little short. With Jesus in our heart, we become saved from our sin … for eternity. 

Just a human being and a sinner … touched by God,

Pastor Bob