I lamented in church last Sunday that I miss the altar call. Certainly, it is damaging in a lot of ways. However, what I like about it is it puts a person to a decision. If Jesus is, in the words of theologian Schubert Ogden, the decisive re-presentation of God in that the words and works of Jesus put a person to a decision, then it seems fitting that a church should have a time when we are, in fact, put to a decision. Perhaps the reason many churches don’t, including ours, is that this decision has become so intertwined in the public consciousness with the problem of sin. Nobody wants to talk about sin.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I was at an emergent church conference a few years ago and a man at my table explained that he was there to see what the emergent church was about. He said that he liked a lot of what he had read, about rethinking the ways that churches are organized and the way that we worship and reflect on our tradition and the way we allow for questioning and hospitality. What he did not like is that we do not talk about sin. I was somewhat taken aback, but I realized that he was mostly right. And it’s not just the emergent church movement; mainline churches don’t often talk about sin, either. We talk about love and grace and justice, which all sound nicer.
As I talked to this man throughout the day, I learned that he was from Yugoslavia. He watched family members die in the war. He saw violence and starvation and rape. He escaped to teach theology here in the States, but he can never forget what he witnessed. Seeing such evil in the world, he needs theology – and the church – to account for sin, to deal with it in some way. It can’t be ignored.
For most Christians today, if you ask about sin and salvation, they will provide some version of what is known as “atonement theology.” There are different nuances, but the gist is that we are so bad and God is so good that Jesus, an innocent, had to die in our place to pay for our sins. Most people believe that this is what Christianity is about. Those who do not like the implications of this theology (violence and blood as necessary conditions of forgiveness; evil as an essential condition of being human; etc.) might reject the faith altogether. Or remain in the faith and simply not talk about it. Those who embrace it might make it sound friendlier, focusing on God’s love for us rather than God’s need for blood. There is a growing number of people who argue against this theology, but it sometimes leaves us without a coherent way to talk about sin and, particularly, the way the Bible talks about sin.
Over the next few weeks, the lectionary brings us Romans and Matthew. Specifically, we have Paul’s thoughts on sin and Matthew’s ideas about hell and condemnation. These probably sound like ugly topics because of our history with those notions. But I believe there is something in the discussion of sin, and even hell, that is liberating. We read these texts through the eyes of Anselm and Luther and Calvin and uncritically accept that this is the only way, that we are “sinners in the hands of angry God,” dangling over the fires of Hell, begging only for mercy. This is not the God that I know. This is not the way I understand myself as a human being or the relationship I have with God and others. Like Paul, I understand any discussion of sin in the Christian context to be a conversation about freedom, reconciliation, and wholeness.
I hope you will join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about sin and the freedom of life in God. There is a lot to unpack here, but I have every confidence that God will show us the way. I promise there won’t be an altar call. Not this time.
Grace & Peace,