“Even as we affirm God’s love for us, we recognize the brokenness of our world — and of ourselves. The wholeness God desires for creation has been fractured by sin, both personal and systemic. Christ’s beloved church is not immune from sin. Our desire to seek peace and pursue it requires an ongoing, honest reckoning with sin.”
• To grapple together with our understanding of sin
• To name specific sins, both personal and systemic, that impact our lives, our churches
and our communities
• To celebrate the forgiveness of sins promised by God through Christ
After we prayed The Lord’s Prayer (with “sins” and “sin against us” in place of “debts” or “trespasses”), we sang, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and then discussed verse 3:
“Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”
Discussion ensued about the impact of the word “fetter.” A positive or negative thing? Often the latter, in many contexts. But compared to sin, its wages and our propensity “to wander,” the only better kind of fetter compared to all the others.
We read from Article 7 of the “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” (1995):
“Sin is turning away from God and making gods of creation and of ourselves. We sin
by making individual and group choices to do unrighteousness and injustice. We sin
by omitting to do good and neglecting to give God the glory due our Creator and
Redeemer. In sinning, we become unfaithful to the covenant with God and with God’s
people, destroy right relationships, use power selfishly, do violence, and become
separated from God. As a result, we are not able to worship God rightly.”
In response to Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Publican, some of the words, ideas and phrases that jumped out at us were: “humility trumps pride….confident of own right…insincere thankfulness…self-justification…confession…mercy available to all”,
In response to the story about Jesus and the little children, words and phrases that came to mind were: “disciples rebuked….what is childlike faith?…openness…trust…receive…”I tell you the truth (Which is Jesus’ way of saying, “Don’t miss this!”)… holding back someone else.”
In groups we then discussed:
a. Which character in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector do you
identify with more? Why?
Answers: Many of us could identify with both, sometimes more often with the Pharisee than with the Publican.
b. Which character seems more emblematic of the Mennonite church? Why?
Answers: Mostly with the Pharisees again, because of our historic emphases on external signs of virtue, piety and conformity, and the certainty that we “had it right” compared to other churches. But not all of us were sure. We may have reacted so much against the external and legalistic strictures of the past that we have no or few boundaries or values today, or are afraid to set any. That may be a reaction to the trauma experienced by pressures to conform to questionable external things.
Our class session concluded with this ancient Christian prayer of confession: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.” From the “Book of Common Prayer” of the Anglican Church
Questions we did not get to:
c. Jesus offers a stern warning to those who would hinder little children from
coming to him. When might our church (either our local congregation or the
Mennonite church as a whole) have hindered people seeking Jesus?
d. How does the definition of sin in the “Confession of Faith” align with your
own working definition? How does it differ?
Your responses to any of these questions above would be welcomed, in the response options on this page.
Some further reflections: Coming to grips honestly, with neither minimization and self-justification nor despairing self-condemnation, is necessary for personal and congregational renewal. So is accepting and embracing our unchosen, un-merited belovedness in the loving eyes of God. Both are necessary to the other. The former without the latter leads to despair, or to cynicism; if we don’t matter so much in the eyes of God, why would we expect anything different from ourselves, and why would sin even matter? Yet the latter without the former leads to spiritual pride, and a sense of entitlement to the love and the blessings of God, as well as to self-flattering comparisons with and against others. God’s love and mercy are also diminished in our eyes, for what is so great about God loving those who are so eminently, evidently and always lovable and lovely? In longstanding Christian tradition, the sins of self-justification and of despairing of the mercy of God are equally as destructive and distorting.
Some may say that “sin” is a only depressing and divisive topic, one to avoid for fear of driving seekers away or making people feel excluded. This is an age when toleration and affirmation is in order, not condemnation. But everyone agrees on the existence of sin, even if only in the sin of naming anything a sin. But it’s always easier to see sin in others than in ourselves.
A great gulf in the Western church is that between seeing sin as oppressive social structures which divide, oppress and condemn, and seeing sin mostly as personal moral failings. Article 7 of the Confession of Faith In A Mennonite Perspective does an admirable job of holding both understandings of sin together, in interrelation. So does the preamble of MC USA’s Three Renewed Commitments, when it says, “We confess that sin fragments our wholeness and strains our relationships with God, each other and the world. Confronted with the misuses of power in our lives, communities and institutions, we seek to tell the truth and repent.”
Jesus’ words about sin in relation to children (either discounting them or abusing them ) ring especially prophetic today, in light of ongoing revelations of endemic child abuse, not only in the Roman Catholic Church. It should come as no surprise that sin would attack, twist and destroy the most vulnerable and innocent among us, or that it would distort and pollute the very sacred channel of our existence, sex and our God-given gifts and powers of procreation. Coming to terms with this sin will bring clergy and churches down from our self-constructed pedestals. That may be the best thing to happen to us.
A Russian Orthodox prayer says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Treasury of all good things, grant me a thorough-going repentance and a diligent heart to see You.”
Another prayer in Russian Orthodox liturgy, attributed to St. Basil the Great: “Grant me now, dear Lord, to love you as fervently as I once loved sin itself.”