Pentecost 20 Mark 10:17-34
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Some thirty years ago the Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Fox ignited the interest and hope of many Christians when he critiqued the notion of ‘original sin’ [a concept foreign to the Bible] and instead spoke of ‘original blessing’.
He was seeking to address the fixation the Church seems to have with sin. It is a fixation that labels everyone, including newborn children, as sinners and in need of both repentance and absolution [the latter being contingent upon the former]. We were born bad, grew bad, and only by supernatural forgiveness, could be acceptable to God. But as Fox says, original sin is alien to Jewish thinking, ‘it introduces an attitude of self-doubt and lack of reverence for self and one’s beauty that is thoroughly the opposite of Jewish consciousness’. [i]
It is also alien to the Jesus we meet in the gospels who loves people for who they are, rather than for who they might become. When Jesus dines with Zaccheus the extortionist, for example, Zaccheus’ desire to make amends for his wicked ways comes after, not before, Jesus has dined with him. Jesus enters into table fellowship with Zaccheus before Zaccheus exhibits any change.
The difference between original sin and original blessing becomes obvious around the understanding of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
In baptism the 1662 liturgy stated that the child was ‘born in original sin and in the wrath of God’ but through baptism is made a child of God. Born bad, made good. The baptism liturgy or today states ‘God is love. In baptism we celebrate that unconditional love, and seek to respond to it.’ In other words: born good, encouraged to live into that goodness.
Similarly these two approaches are reflected in the Eucharist. In past liturgies the sense was that it was a holy communion between the individual sinner [who repented before kneeling at the altar rail] and the saving God. We were unworthy, needful of mercy and absolution, before receiving the private grace of the sacrament. The liturgical renewal movement of the 70s and 80s which gave rise to the NZ Prayerbook challenged that notion. Instead of a private devotion the Eucharist was envisaged as a community meal with the Spirit of Jesus in our midst. We were brothers and sisters in God, not dependent children, who now stood together with eyes open, rather than heads bowed, empowering and receiving power and grace from the Spirit among us. We were worthy before, during, and after the sacrament.
These latter understandings of baptism and Eucharist are founded upon the central truth that God has blessed and loved us from the beginning, and has already forgiven anything we have done or might do. This is difficult sometimes for us to comprehend.
Karl Barth, the great German theologian, when asked when he became a Christian replied “33 AD”. According to Barth, Jesus’ death and resurrection brought redemption for the whole world, for the past, present, and future. All sin was forgiven at that point. So the notion that God won’t forgive me unless I repent is erroneous. God has already forgiven you in 33 AD. You are forgiven, saved. As F.D. Maurice would say, your task is now to become what you already are – beautiful, blessed, and a blessing.
I would differ a little from Barth in saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection showed forth the unchanging nature of God, which has always understood us as forgiven, beautiful, a blessing, and blessed. Original blessing didn’t start with Jesus.
Some ask me why we don’t have a prayer of confession and absolution as part of every Eucharist at St Matthew’s. The answer is that while confession and absolution can be pastorally helpful, as pertaining to the fundamental nature of our being-in-God it is bad theology.
Let me explain: sin, frailty, and/or failure are a part of our lives. Sometimes we need support in dealing with it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God both knows about it and has already forgiven us. So in seasons like Lent and Advent our liturgies offer this pastoral support. Note though for others such a rite is unhelpful when they don’t feel in the least bit sinful.
However, as regards the core nature of our being-in-God, the ritual of confession and absolution doubts God. It seems to doubt that God has already forgiven us. It disputes that we are acceptable to God before we ever say sorry. It doubts we are always beautiful, always blessed, and always a blessing.
The notions of original blessing and original sin, of forgiveness and acceptability, as intimated by my reference Barth, are connected with how we understand the death of Jesus. The old liturgies are disproportionately shaped by the thinking of St Augustine in the 5th century and by what St Paul seems to say in Romans 5. They seem to say that our original sinfulness was so great that God, being deeply offended by such sinfulness, could only be appeased by the violent shedding of the blood of his innocent son.
Actually it isn’t clear from his multiple attempts to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death what Paul really meant. Five main theories have emerged. Firstly, there’s the satisfaction theory: Judge God needed a blood sacrifice. [A pretty violent notion of God!]. Secondly, there’s the substitution theory: Jesus is not a sacrifice but a pay-off. We sinners deserve a horrible death, but the innocent Jesus dies in our place. [Again a horrible picture of God]. Thirdly, there’s the ransom theory: God paid off Satan with Jesus’ death. [Father God betraying fatherly love?!]. Fourthly, there’s the victory theory: Jesus’ obedience, even unto death, showed his superiority to Satan. Lastly, there’s the moral theory: that Jesus is an example of faithfulness to one’s convictions.
The first three theories are all premised on original sin and our unworthiness before God. The last two however are about Jesus exhibiting the best attributes of our blest humanity, the goodness of our humanity, in enduring the persecution and torture of those who were affronted by his inclusive love and hospitality. Jesus died because of our sins, rather than for our sins. In other words Jesus died because his principles and actions led him into conflict with an unjust, insecure, and violent regime.
I want to both summarize and conclude this sermon with some wonderful words from Bishop Jack Spong:
“Jesus did not die for our sins, let that be said a thousand times. Jesus did not come from God to rescue fallen, sinful, inadequate, incompetent people like you and me. That is an image of a God who comes to us from outside to rescue this fallen [and originally sinful] creation. That is an idea we need to escape. Jesus has to become, not the Divine Invader, but the human face of what God looks like in human form. That is because when you look at Jesus he lives fully. Nothing diminishes his life. He never diminished anyone else’s life. People betrayed him and he responded by loving them. People denied him and he responded by loving them. People tormented him and he responded by loving them. People killed him and he responded by loving them. How else could he communicate to people like you and me that there is nothing we can ever do, there is nothing we can ever be that will place us outside the boundaries of the love of God. It is not that we are some worthless inadequate person that God has to come in and rescue, it is that God’s love is so abundant and so overwhelming that this love calls us to live, and to love, and to be all that we can be so that God can live in and through us. That is a very different way to think about God.” [ii]
[i] P.108 D.M. Felton & J. Procter-Murphy Living the Questions
[ii] P.115 D.M. Felton & J. Procter-Murphy Living the Questions