Most would agree that we humans routinely mess up through thoughtlessness, carelessness and selfishness.
And all too frequently, we harm others through acts driven by covetousness, pride and despair. These behaviors are the shadow side of our capacity to reflect, plan and act.
Yet when the universal human experience of sin is spoken of within the church, an expanded and highly theological meaning is often added. Our sin offends God, thereby separating us from God. This relational rupture is described as the crucial reason we need a savior; it is the core of what many churches refer to as “our sin problem.”
Since this understanding is so prominent in Christian theology, we would expect to find Jesus of Nazareth speaking of it often in the Gospel accounts. But that isn’t what we find. Instead, we find Jesus describing God as sending rain on the just and the unjust, forgiving us as we forgive each other, standing on the front porch watching for our return from a long and fruitless journey and as eager to meet our needs as any human parent to feed her hungry child.
Yes, Jesus often engaged people who were estranged from God; recall, for example, his encounters with people possessed by evil spirits. But always the estrangement was rooted in the human side of the relationship. Never did Jesus suggest God has a score to settle with us.
Some parts of the Bible do support the notion that our sins prompt God to turn away from us in disgust. More often, however, such portions describe the real-life consequences of sin, not God’s rejection of us as sinners.
If it is theologically incorrect to say God rejects us because of our sins, then why do we need a savior? Why did Jesus feel compelled to bear such suffering on our behalf?
Behind every First Testament call to “repent,” and there are many, is the assumption that the Israelites were able to repent, to make a different choice. Yet repentance must have been nearly unimaginable for them. The world worked by violence, coercion and greed; most everything in their experience confirmed this. Though the prophets called for repentance, it seemed beyond the people’s reach.
This is the sin problem the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans. God’s justice and peace are on display all around us, but we are blinded by false gods and deceitful power structures that find great advantage in the exploitation of our sinfulness. Thus, we mistakenly conclude that the world is what it is. We can imagine no alternative, and repentance again seems out of reach. Until we look at Jesus. In him, the “righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Romans 3:21). He breaks the stranglehold of the imperial worldview, reignites our imagination and raises high a standard of compassion and justice that shines a light on all that is violent, tawdry and deceitful.
Jesus did this by his life, death and resurrection. The memory, power and vision of his life are what empower our repentance still today.
From Genesis to Revelation, we read of God opposing empires and structures of coercion. It is most obvious in the story of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, but the same dynamic was at work in the movement launched by Jesus. Paul wrote of it often, especially in Colossians: “(God) disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” (2:15). This is the truth often rejected by the church in its acceptance of principalities and powers, kings and empires, as better teachers and examples than Jesus of how to live this life and run the world.
Though deceit, greed and violence are the stock in trade of the empire, we as individuals also need to repent of them. Because we have seen the world set right in Jesus, and because we have come to recognize empire’s evil designs, we are able to believe Jesus is the way and to repent, turn and walk in newness of life. Yes, we still have a sin problem, but in Christ the scales have fallen from our eyes. Thanks be to God.
John K. Stoner is a member of Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church. Berry Friesen is a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa. Stoner and Friesen are co-authors of If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible. Go to www.bible-and-empire.net.