I gave this message in 2016. Article 7 of the confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective.
This is a painting by Vasily Polenov depicting the gospel story of the woman caught in adultery. The story is profound in expanding our understanding of sin, justice and redemption. I like how the artist made sure to paint in plenty of stones.
Sin is a topic that gets a lot of discussion in church and in society. Sin is most often taught to children as doing bad and many people grow up believing this, but definitions of bad and good vary and so a discussion about sin would help in clearing this up.
The topic of sin is both a simple and complicated subject. It’s simple in that in some form, sin is easy to identify and there is some common understanding about what sin is. And it’s complicated in that there is a lot of debate over the details of what sin is and it’s consequences. For example, a child lying to their parent about something bad they did is a sin, but people will debate the right or wrong of driving faster than the speed limit without coming to a conclusion.
How we define sin changes how we practice our faith. For example, while we Mennonites believe we live in a fallen world caused by sin, we do not believe that babies are doomed to eternal hell because of it which is why we practice believer baptism.
The 7th article in our Confession of Faith is titled “Sin”. It’s important to note what we, as Mennonites, stress about the subject of sin. In our confession, we intentionally don’t bother talking about certain aspects of sin. It’s not that we don’t believe these aspects exist, it’s that we believe that there are other aspects that are more important in contrast with our current culture and our practice of faith historically. For example, our confession does not discuss the unforgivable sin, but we do spend a lot of time talking about what sin is, it’s source and it’s consequences.
A dangerous animal
Even Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Luke 4:13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
Paragraph 1 of article 7: We confess that, beginning with Adam and Eve, humanity has disobeyed God, given way to the tempter, and chosen to sin. Because of sin, all have fallen short of the Creator’s intent, marred the image of God in which they were created, disrupted order in the world, and limited their love for others. Because of sin, humanity has been given over to the enslaving powers of evil and death.
The emphasis here is that sin is a choice and we must accept responsibility. To this day, we continue to imitate Adam and Eve by blaming others for our own sin. Through history and in our modern culture, there are philosophies that try to take away personal responsibility for sin.
We also believe that there is a sinful being which is named in scripture: Serpent, Dragon, Father of Lies, Tempter, Satan, the devil. This personal power is not some fictional character. We believe Satan to be real.
In Genesis, Satan is identified as the serpent. An animal of creation. God gave women and men dominion over earth and all it’s creatures including the serpent. Adam & Eve’s sin isn’t just disobedience to God, it is listening to the tempter and believing him rather than obeying God. What we see in this story is a role reversal, where humans should have been rulers, we became subjects. This theme isn’t stated explicitly, but it comes up again in Genesis 4 when God is talking to Cain:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”Genesis 4:6-7 NIV
Sin is described like an animal, ready to pounce on Cain and become Cain’s master. God tells Cain that he must rule over it. Temptation is like a creature of creation, we were meant to master it, but instead, like our confession says, we have given over to the enslaving powers of evil and death. We are consumed by sin.
Paragraph 2 of article 7: 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.
Our culture emphasizes that sin is doing something wrong, but sin is actually not doing the good that we should do.
Our culture tends to focus on individual sin and forgets about sins we participate in as part of the institutions around us. This comes from a worldly philosophy that sin is only sin when we make a clear decision to do something bad like lie, cheat, steal or kill. We believe it is sin when we ignore the injustice of governing institutions, even when we don’t directly participate in the sin.
For example, the South Bronx in New York receives a significant amount of New York’s garbage for processing. The path of the trucks goes through these poorer neighborhoods because the people that live there do not have the wealth and power to protect their own interests. As a result of this institutional abuse of power, deaths related to asthma are 3 times higher than the national average and hospitalization 5 times higher (http://www.nyenvironmentreport.com/the-bronx-is-breathing/). Most people would say that this is not my problem, but we say, it is now our problem because it is unjust.
Sin hinders our ability to worship God rightly. I mention this because sometimes we think we need certain songs to worship well or certain types of worship services, but these things are not central to worship. If you are hindered in worship or if we as a congregation are hindered in worship, it is not the songs that need to be changed, but our hearts.
War is one of the consequences of a fallen world.
Paragraph 3 of article 7: Through sin, the powers of domination, division, destruction, and death have been unleashed in humanity and in all of creation. They have, in turn, further subjected human beings to the power of sin and evil, and have increased burdensome work and barren rest. The more we sin, the more we become trapped in sin. By our sin we open ourselves to the bondage of demonic powers. Because of sin and its consequences, the efforts of human beings on their own to do the good and to know the truth are constantly corrupted.
The 3rd paragraph emphasizes the effects of sin. There are two realities being emphasized in this paragraph.
The first reality is that we are born into a fallen world and we cannot change that. We suffer from the effects of the sin of Adam and Eve and from the sin of our ancestors, just like our children will suffer from our sins and a fallen world. We don’t start life with a fresh slate, we inherit the world in the state that it was left to us. In this way, we are at a disadvantage.
The second reality is that the demonic powers work to dominate us individually to make us slaves to sin. It’s in the second reality that we have a choice. Do you choose to become enslaved to the powers of sin at work in the world?
Principalities & Powers
Some people might remember that in 1994 a 79 year old woman named Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million in a lawsuit against McDonald’s because she spilled coffee on her lap. This lawsuit became one of many poster cases that caused a lot of public opinion to be in favor of changing the legal system to make lawsuits more difficult. What most people don’t realize is that Stella, a 79 year old grandmother was sitting in a stationary car in the passenger seat trying to open her coffee when it spilled on her lap. The coffee was so hot it gave her 3rd degree burns over her legs and mid section. She was hospitalized for 8 days to get skin grafted, she lost 20 pounds dropping to 83 pounds during this time and spent almost a month recovering at her daughters. Imagine, if this 79 year old grandmother didn’t receive immediate medical attention, she could’ve died because of McDonald’s coffee. She couldn’t walk properly for years. I never knew coffee could be so dangerous, yet most people don’t know this and neither did Stella who’s family suffered medical costs that burdened the entire family. In fact, they sued McDonald’s for only $20,000, the amount of their burden. It was the jury that ordered McDonald’s to pay $2.86 million. Most people also don’t realize that McDonald’s appealed the case and settled out of court and the truth of the terms are hidden from the public. The family received less than $600,000. McDonald’s and the industry as a whole had taken advantage of the court case for public relations purposes to make McDonald’s look like an innocent and abused victim and allowed people believe that this grandmother was an opportunistic old lady looking for a quick buck. In the end, McDonald’s didn’t loose too much and in fact won the support of the public to their cause. As a result, most people have lost faith in systems of justice designed to protect them.
Paragraph 4 of article 7: The enslaving nature of sin is apparent in the powers of evil, which work through both individuals and groups and in the entire created order. These powers, principalities, and elemental spirits of the universe often hold people captive and work through political, economic, social, and even religious systems to turn people away from justice and righteousness. But thanks be to God, who has not allowed the powers to reign supreme over creation or left humanity without hope.
Everything on earth is subject to sin, even our religious systems. When child sexual abuse was discovered in the Catholic church, the Catholic church suffered. The abuse in itself would’ve been damaging enough to the church, but what made it many times worse was the fact that the church’s leadership had hidden the truth and enabled abuse to continue.
We are not always aware of how the systems around us manipulate perfectly honest Christians into hiding the truth or prevent Christians from helping one another. In many places, governments had to create “Good Samaritan Laws” that prevent or limit lawsuits against by-standers who choose to help a person they believe is injured.
Many people criticize the way people abuse the legal system with “frivolous” lawsuits, but what we don’t realize is that if you dismantle this part of the legal system, you would remove the only place for the poor and marginalized to get justice. At the same time, fear of lawsuits has caused even Christian Institutions to sin by intentionally hiding the truth.
Paul describes our struggle best in:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.Ephesians 6:10-12