In the evangelism programme, we are presently using in this parish, Introducing God, Dominic Steele refrains from using the word sin. Instead of ‘sin’ he uses the word, ‘autonomy’, that is, our desire to be autonomous, our denial of God’s rightful authority over our lives.
There are at least two reasons that Dominic makes this substitution. The first is simply that ‘sin’ is, or has become, meaningless to our generation. Secondly, if ‘sin’ means anything, it has been reduced to a list of things we do that the church has decided are sins. Again ‘sin’ has become meaningless because people make up their own mind as to what is a sin.
I don’t find it useful to think of ‘sin’ in terms of a list of things that are sinful. Rather, I find it helpful to define sin by whether the outcome of the activity is good or bad, and even whether something is good in one context and bad in another. It is useful, I think, to consider sin as anything we do, say, or think, that damages a relationship, or potential relationship, with God, with another, even with our self. Sin is not concerned with an action itself, but with the nature of the action.
The word in Greek from the bible, which we translate as ‘sin’ is ‘hamartia’, which literally means missing the mark. It is better described by a word picture than it is by a definition. Sin is like an archer who aims to shoot an arrow at the centre of a target and either misses the bullseye, misses the target completely, or falls short of the target.
This understanding of sin has a profound influence on what we consider to be sinful acts. Sin becomes a very grey area of theology, because it is not just the act, it is also the reason behind the action, which determines a sin.
When we came to consecrate the first female bishop for the Diocese of Melbourne, there were some who considered this a sinful act, simply because she is a female to be in authority over men in the Church. That is not a point of view that I support. It has been decided that we need another bishop in the life of our Diocese. Canonically, that bishop can be either male or female. The question that will have been asked is, are we consecrating a female bishop because it is politically correct to do so, or because this person is the best person for the job. Something that is good can easily be sinful because it misses the mark. I am encouraged that I hear, as I would also expect for any candidate, that that first female bishop, Barbara Darling is indeed a fine choice supported, even by the conservatives in the Diocese.
It may be that sometimes we miss the mark because we are simply not aiming at the target. For example, we often speak about the need to get people to come to church. We may even want this because we remember when the church was full of people, because the finances are a little bit tight, or because we are all getting old and tired and we need others to take over the things we used to be able to do. Hoping to get others to come to church is, in itself, a good thing, but the motivation behind it causes it to miss the mark. Our target is not to get people to come to church, it is to help people find a relationship with God of which church attendance is an expression of that relationship.
I wonder what other motivations, if we examined them, betray our failure to hit the target because we are not actually aiming at the target at all. It is not just the result of our words, thoughts and actions that declare sinfulness, it is also the motivation behind them.
It is to this end that the readings direct us today. Paul, in challenging the brokenness of the church in Corinth says, “When the Lord comes, he will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” It is on this basis that our words, thoughts and actions will be, and are, judged.
Jesus give us the means of helping us to determine the rightness of our thoughts, words and actions, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Our motivation should be nothing short of the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
There is a song we sing at the 10.00 am service that sums up this idea:
When the music fades,
all is stripped away,
and I simply come;
longing just to bring
something that’s of worth
that will bless Your heart.
I’ll bring You more than a song,
for a song in itself
is not what You have required.
You search much deeper within
through the way things appear;
You’re looking into my heart.
I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
and it’s all about You,
all about You, Jesus.
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it,
when it’s all about You,
all about You, Jesus.
How often have we missed the mark!
Jesus summarises the law and the prophets as loving God, loving neighbour and loving self. How well we have loved those who are a part of our life together, then loved those who are our neighbours, and then loved God. They are all good things, but how easy it is to get the order wrong.
Our vision and values are our attempt to call us to what we aim for to grow a Christian community for all. We can achieve this firstly through nurturing our relationship with God, secondly by serving our neighbours and enabling them to find a relationship with God, and lastly, serving and nurturing our relationship with those who are already a part of our life together.
We must get our priorities and motives right or else we will miss the mark and those things that ought to be good become little more than sinful actions.