Things Are Not as They Appear

As I read the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, one theme strikes me as tying all four texts together: things are not as they appear. Reality is often much different than it seems at face value. The truth often requires a deep dive beneath the surface.

There’s 1 Samuel 16, where the prophet Samuel is persuaded that Jesse’s son Eliab is God’s choice for Israel’s next king. After all, not only is Eliab the eldest son, worthy of double blessing, but he is strong and tall just like a king should be (like the first king, Saul, was, in fact—see 15:35 for how well that went). But God says no to Eliab, for “God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

Then there’s Psalm 20, where we hear these words of David: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.” Military might and strength seems like it should be the way forward for an up-and-coming nation. Yet David insists that’s the wrong way to look on things. (Too bad he and later kings and queens forgot this.)

There’s also 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul comes straight out and says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a ‘fleshly’ point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a ‘fleshly’ point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” No one, not even Jesus, can be taken at face value. It requires a “new creation” heart-change to see people for who they really are.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Finally, there’s Mark 4 with two of my favourite parables of Jesus, the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed. These parables highlight the unexpected insignificance and inherent mystery of God’s reign, both in how it begins and how it grows. God’s dominion does not begin or grow like other royal reigns; it comes not through conquest or coercion, but through small acts of love in solidarity with the least in the world’s eyes.

These texts invite us to look beyond the surface of things, to dig a little deeper. They encourage us to see people for who they really are, not merely who they appear to be. They call us to look for the reign of God not in the powerful and mighty, not in the big and flashy, but in the small and insignificant things of life.

God Regards the Lowly

A sermon preached at Glenlea Mennonite Church on June 6, 2021.

The Queen, the Golden Boy, and the Children’s Shoes

This past week I went to the Manitoba Legislature.

It was my first time there, the first time I had ever walked the grounds. They are beautiful, with their lush green lawns and expansive spaces. Soon the flower beds will all be planted and the grounds will be even more beautiful.

And, of course, there’s the magnificent architecture and decoration. Statues of important people adorn grounds and building, from nameless soldiers to the Famous Five, from Louis Riel to Queen Elizabeth II.

There’s Queen Victoria on her throne, holding her royal sceptre in one hand and her royal orb in the other, symbolizing her reign over the British Empire throughout the earth as the representative of Christ.

And wrapped around her feet is a plain orange cloth, with children’s teddy bears collected at its base, framed by simple wooden crosses bound with orange ribbons.

Sculpted into the façade on the north side of the Leg there are the symbols of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, with a woman representing Manitoba in the very centre, in the position of authority.

And on the grass below is a tipi with orange flags, the words “Bringing our children home” painted on its side.

High above Queen Victoria  and Lady Manitoba there’s the Golden Boy, the god Mercury, the god of Prosperity. He faces the north, with all its raw minerals and forests and mighty rivers, ready to harness these for Manitoba’s wealth and success.

And far below, on the steps of the Legislature, there are hundreds of children’s shoes laid out, interspersed with other trinkets of innocent childhood. A sacred fire burns, tended by Indigenous elders and volunteers.

As you’ll now have guessed, I was at the Leg for the vigil this past week for the 215 children whose remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. It was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had.

I stood in front of those shoes, transfixed. There was a pair of shoes just like the ones our son Michael wore when he was a boy. There was a monkey teddy bear just like the one our son Matthew used to sleep with. There was a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag, ready for a student’s lunch. There was an apple, polished to give to a teacher. Sounds of living Indigenous children echoed around me as they played on those beautiful grounds.

All so very normal.

Yet what happened to these 215 children, and thousands more like them, was not anything that should ever be normal. Taken from their families. Forced to renounce their language, their culture, their identity. Many of them beaten, some of them raped. These 215 killed through disease or malnutrition or abuse, their families never told.

When I got to the sacred fire, I took my pinch of tobacco (with my left hand, because it’s closer to the heart), I spoke my name to the fire, and then all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

I stood there on these grounds filled with their imagery of colonialism, from Queen Victoria to the Golden Boy, yet dotted with these symbols of the colonized, the colonized themselves scattered around me, and I could only say, “I’m sorry.”

Where was God in the midst of all this? Was God in the Queen, the British Empire’s proclaimed representative of Christ on earth?

Where is God right now? Is God in the Manitoba Legislature, with its power propped up by its daily Judeo-Christian prayer, its Golden Boy still focused on extracting prosperity from the earth?

“God Regards the Lowly”

The words from one of our lectionary texts for today, Psalm 138, speak to me in these questions. Maybe they will speak to you as well. Listen to verses 4-6 once again:

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
for great is the glory of God.
For though God is on high, God regards the lowly;
but the proud and mighty God perceives from far away.

It’s quite the image. All the royalty of the earth is gathered before the Creator God: kings and queens, emperors and empresses, lords and pharaohs, earthly rulers of all kinds. And in this image, all these mighty ones praise the one true and living God, the Creator. They have heard the words of God’s mouth, God’s supreme law, and so they sing of God’s power and righteousness.

So far even Queen Victoria in all her powerful state would have agreed with this. Like all Christian monarchs through history, she saw herself as under the power and authority of God—the only monarch to which she would bow. Like all Christian monarchs before her and since, Queen Victoria gave praise to God as the High King above all kings and queens of the earth, the Great King whose word is supreme law.

But I can’t help but wonder how Queen Victoria might have thought of the rest of this passage.

“Great is the glory of God,” the Psalm says, then goes on to define “God’s glory” in an unexpected way.

The glory of God is not that God is great and powerful, though this is true.

The glory of God is not that God’s words are reliable and authoritative, though this is also true.

Rather, the glory of God is that “even though God is on high, God regards the lowly.” The “proud and mighty God perceive from far away,” but God regards the lowly. This is the glory of God.

This is the glory of God. That the almighty God, the Creator of all things, hears the cries of the oppressed, sees injustice committed against the dispossessed, pays close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and comes to them, walks with them, strengthens them, and lifts them up toward wholeness.

And this, in David’s vision, is ultimately why the “kings of the earth” shall praise God. Because they will one day see God’s glory, the glory of the God who regards the lowly.

I would dare say that this would have been harder for Queen Victoria to hear, and most other Christian monarchs through history. Especially when Jesus shows us the full implications of this view of God, when King Jesus shows us the full glory of God.

The Glory of God in Jesus

“We have seen God’s glory,” John says in his Gospel, in John 1:14. And how has John seen God’s glory? “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The eternal Word of God—the Word behind all the true and trustworthy words of God spoken through Moses and the Prophets, spoken in creation—this eternal Word of God has become flesh and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah, our King. This is how we, too, have seen the glory of God.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus bearing the burdens of the sick and the disabled, bringing healing to those who most need it, who can’t give him anything for it.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus welcoming the children, embracing them in joyful, protective love, naming them heirs of God’s kingdom.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus reaching out to the outcast, pulling in the pushed-aside, honouring the shamed, forgiving the repentant sinner.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus blessing the poor and the pressed-down, walking in solidarity with them, naming them, also, heirs of God’s kingdom.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus walking in solidarity with these wounded and humbled and outcast and shamed and sinners and poor and oppressed, all the way to the cross—a criminal’s death, a slave’s death, a shameful death, a death for oppressed and dispossessed peoples.

Jesus not only lives in solidarity with the lowly, he dies in solidarity with them.

It is in these ways that we see most clearly the glory of God in Jesus, the glory of the God who regards the lowly above the proud and mighty. The glory of God is in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of love.

God With #215IndigenousChildren

So, where was God when these 215 children were neglected, perhaps beaten, perhaps raped, dying without their mothers and fathers?

Was God in the Queen, the British Empire’s proclaimed representative of Christ on earth? Was God in the Prime Minister or in the Department of Indian Affairs, the orchestrator and perpetuators of these schools? Was God in the residential school principals and teachers who allowed these things to happen, even, for some of them, directly causing these things to happen? Was God with the mighty?

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we must say “No.” God was with these powerful people only as much as God is everywhere, with everyone.

But God regards the lowly. God in Jesus walks in solidarity with the lowly. God in Jesus walks with the crucified.

So where was God? God was with the children. God was in their suffering, in their wounds, in their cries of pain and anger, in their tears of loneliness and rejection. God was with the children. They were the very least of “the least of these,” in whom we see Jesus, whom we are called to clothe and feed and welcome and protect in the way of Jesus.

And so, I must ask, where is God right now? Is God in the Manitoba Legislature, with its power propped up by daily Christian prayer, its Golden Boy still focused on extracting prosperity from the earth? Is God in other powerful people, in other human systems of power and prestige, in the wealthy and the esteemed?

God is where God has always been. God is with the children. God is with the widow and orphan. God is with the poor and stranger. God is with the suffering. God is with the outcast. God is with the least of these. God is with the lowly.

The almighty God, the Creator of all things, hears the cries of the oppressed, sees injustice committed against the dispossessed, pays close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and comes to them, walks with them, strengthens them, and lifts them up toward wholeness. This is where God is. This is the glory of God.

And so, my friends in Christ, this is where we must be. If we want to be with God, if we want to reflect the glory of God as those in the image of God, if we want to walk in the way of Jesus, we, too, must regard the lowly above the powerful.

We, too, must hear the cries of the oppressed, we must see the injustices committed against the dispossessed, we must pay close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and then we must go to them, walk with them, strengthen them, and lift them up toward wholeness.

May we have the courage to walk in this way of Jesus, his way of the cross, his way of love, and so prove ourselves to be his disciples. And, as we do this, may we be encouraged by two profound realities: Jesus has promised that when we walk in Jesus’ way of love, the way of his cross, that we will then find true life; and, Jesus has promised to be with us all the way, strengthened by his Spirit, until the very end of the age. Amen.

The Glory of God: Walking with the Lowly

“All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God.
    for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
    for great is the glory of God.
For though God is high, God regards the lowly;
    but the haughty God perceives from far away.” (Ps 138:4-6)

In this psalm of David, what is it that especially makes the kings of the earth praise the God of Israel, the one true and living God? They “hear the words of God’s mouth,” yes, God’s Torah words of justice and equity. But ultimately it is that, “though God is high, God regards the lowly.”

What makes the powers-that-be in this world really sit up and take notice of God is not that God is more exalted than they are (which is true), it is that even in God’s exalted state God pays special attention to the lowly: the weak, the suffering, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the dispossessed. This is “the glory of God.”

I’m not sure how often this is true, that the powerful of this world—presidents and prime ministers, the super-wealthy and those celebrity influencers—admire God because God loves the lowly. Maybe, as David says, this will happen some day yet future.

Nevertheless, this is what we should sit up and take notice about God. As God’s people, we praise God for God’s words to us—as Christians especially God’s living Word, Jesus—but even more we praise God because God pays special attention to the lowly. This is “the glory of God” revealed to us in Jesus, and this is the divine glory which we are called to reflect as image-bearers of God.

When we are among the lowly, may we be encouraged to know that God’s eye is upon us, God’s ear is attuned to our cries, and we are held in God’s loving hands. And when we are not among the lowly, may we reflect this glory of God by walking in these ways of God with the lowly among us and around us.

The Gathered Redeemed

I’ve always loved Psalm 107 for the ways it describes the diversity of our encounters with God. No two people come to God in the same way. No two people experience God in the same way.

There’s the intro in verses 1-3: “Give thanks to God, for God is good! God’s steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed say so, all those God redeemed and gathered in from all different directions.” Then the Psalmist gives four different examples of how “the redeemed” have come to God.

There are those who have experienced hunger and barrenness (vv. 4-9): they have “wandered in desert wastes” until “their soul fainted within them.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “satisfying the thirsty and filling the hungry with good things.”

There are those who have experienced oppression and imprisonment (vv. 10-16): they “sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons,” and “their hearts were bowed down with hard labour.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “shattering the doors of bronze, and cutting in two the bars of iron.”

There are those who have experienced sickness and affliction (vv. 17-22): they “loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “sending out God’s word and healing them, delivering them from destruction.”

Then there are those who have experienced success and power, until disaster strikes (vv. 23-32): they went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” until “they went down to the depths” and “their courage melted away in their calamity.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “making the storm be still” and “bringing them to their desired haven.”

The Psalm closes with a beautiful depiction of God’s faithfulness and love toward those who are lowly or oppressed, humble and repentant. “When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, God pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but God raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks.”

The whole Psalm is a wonderful reminder of the many ways God meets us in our need, meeting each of us exactly where we are at, meeting us exactly as we are. Do any of these poetic depictions above describe your story of encountering God? If not, what metaphor might you use for that?

“Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”

(Re-)Imagining Worship

It’s interesting that the New Testament never gives a detailed description of exactly what went on when the first Jesus-followers gathered together to worship. There’s no divinely inspired “order of service.”

The closing worship service at Mennonite Arts Weekend 2016, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Cara Hummel. Sure, we get some glimpses of early Christian worship here and there: some snippets in the book of Acts, some clues in the New Testament letters. But nowhere in the New Testament do we get a really detailed description of what a “worship service” looked like for the first Christians.

Probably it was different in every place.

Jewish Christians in Jerusalem likely modeled their worship meetings after the synagogue service they were familiar with: Scripture readings, a sermon, singing psalms, prayers. Gentile Christians in Corinth may have modeled their gatherings after religious banquets or society meetings: religious rites, speeches, a shared meal.

The “worship services” in churches planted by Paul in Turkey or Greece probably looked very different from the regular meetings in churches planted by Thomas in India or Philip in Africa—different languages, different music, different food and dress, and, of course, different kinds of people.

In fact, the Bible provides quite a diverse list of the sorts of things that God’s people did when they got together to worship, from the ancestors of Israel all the way through to the earliest Christians:

  • telling stories, reciting poetry, chanting psalms;
  • loud cymbals, drums, and horns; soft harps and lyres; no instruments at all;
  • responsive reading, antiphonal singing, dramatic re-enactments, visual art;
  • kneeling, standing, clapping, dancing, eating, drinking;
  • confessing sins, receiving forgiveness, blessing one another;
  • hearing Scripture, teaching the faith, affirming the faith, proclaiming good news, encouraging one another;
  • praying, praising, thanking, silence.

And then there’s the diverse worship history of the church. Beautiful sacred spaces, from large cathedrals to small parish churches. Stained glass, exquisite art, imposing sculpture. Gorgeous cantatas, plainsong chants, simple hymns, well-known carols.

In our own Mennonite tradition, there has been everything from simple unison singing to full-throated four-part harmony, from plain furnishings to elaborate quilting, from the basic hymns-prayers-Scripture-sermon format to intricate services incorporating ancient liturgies from other traditions.

And beyond our Mennonite tradition, beyond the Western history of the church, there’s a whole world of worship out there from across the globe, from every language and culture and tribe and nation.

We can tend to think that there’s only ever been one way the church has worshiped, or that there’s an obvious “best way” to worship God when we gather together, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.

And, in fact, it’s not really healthy for us to get stuck in a rut in our worship, always and only doing everything the same way. There’s a reason the Psalms exhort us multiple times to “sing to the Lord a new song.” It’s because a willingness to try new ways of worshiping is like a willingness to explore new ways of thinking about God or to work out new ways of following Jesus—it is evidence of an authentic faith, a faith that is vibrant and growing and very much alive.

All this is what I mean when I say we need to develop a “liturgical imagination.” We need, to use Paul’s words in Colossians, always to remain grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, letting the “word of Christ” dwell among us richly in our teaching and preaching, our singing and music, every “word and deed” of our collective worship. But we need to continually re-imagine what this all looks like.

And we have no shortage of resources to work with. We have the examples of worship throughout the biblical writings. We have models of worship throughout the church’s history and from around the world. And we have rich resources among us a congregation, creative gifts in preaching, teaching, storytelling, poetry, music, visual art, tactile art, culinary art, drama, dance, and so much more.

I wonder: how might God’s Spirit prompt us to “sing a new song” in our worship together, to try out new “words and deeds,” fresh ways of worshiping God?

But “developing a liturgical imagination” is more than just the people up in the front leading us in trying out some new things. Each one of us needs to use our imagination in participating in worship.

When we walk into the sanctuary every Sunday morning we all need to be ready to use our God-given imagination, using our imagination to enter into whole new worlds of worship.

Using our imagination to enter the world of the songwriter when we sing their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the biblical author when we read their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the worship leader or preacher when we hear their words.

Using our imagination to enter into the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And in this way, as we teach and sing the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other before God, letting the “word of Christ dwell among us richly,” we can come to believe with ever-increasing faith that we are God’s “holy and beloved” children, “chosen by God” to be more and more like Jesus.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on October 23, 2016, part of a sermon series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

You Are Needed

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 24, 2016. See others in the series: “Loved,” “Forgiven,” “Not Alone.” Here is the audio of the full sermon:

Astronomers tell us that the stars we see at night are only the tiniest fraction of all the stars out there. Someone with the best eyesight on the clearest night with no moon will see around 4,000 stars—but there are billions upon billions of stars in the universe. In fact, some of those “stars” up there are not even stars at all, but whole galaxies: billions more stars, so far away that even through a telescope they look like a single, tiny point of light.

It can be awe-inspiring, but it can also make us feel pretty small, pretty insignificant. That’s the feeling behind these familiar words from Psalm 8:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

God our Creator, your creation is so vast, you must be even more vast! Why should we think that you care about us, mere ashes and dust? Why should we think there is any meaning to this life, any purpose for our existence?

Have you ever felt this way? Small, insignificant, hardly worth anyone’s attention, let alone God’s?

Maybe you are on the cusp of adulthood, making the transition to full independence. You are at a crossroads, wondering what you should do with your life. The world can seem so big, and you so small, and the answers you received in your childhood are starting to seem pretty simplistic.

Or maybe you are closer to the end of your life than the beginning. You think of all the things you used to do, that you can’t do any more. You used to be so useful, but now maybe you feel useless, unnecessary.

Or maybe you are somewhere in between, but faced with illness or death, a job loss, a relationship rupture, a big move. You feel de-stabilized, like the ground is shifting beneath your feet.

It’s at times like these that we tend to ask the “purpose” questions of life: “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “What is my purpose?”

If any of this is how you feel, God has some good news for you: “You are needed.”

You are needed. God has created you for a purpose, a purpose that is tied into God’s larger purposes for the world. And that purpose doesn’t change, regardless of your past or your present or whatever stage of life you’re at. That purpose doesn’t change, regardless of who you are or aren’t, or what you know or don’t know, or what you can or cannot do. You are needed.

Listen again to the way Psalm 8 continues:

You have made them [human beings] a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet.

Think of this: you are a ruler over the works of God’s hands! This is how God looks at you. God sees everything about you: strengths and weaknesses, temperament and emotions, inner thoughts and outward actions, past and present. But through all this—both the good and the bad—God sees you as a queen or a king, charged with ruling in God’s earthly creation.

Okay, that might sound strange! Maybe some of you have read C. S. Lewis’s stories of Narnia, and you think of the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve” being “kings and queens in Narnia.” It sounds like fantasy, not reality.

But C. S. Lewis had it exactly right. You see, Psalm 8 is simply reflecting Genesis 1 and the profound truth there that human beings are created “in the image of God.” This is what that means: we are each of us, all of us, you and me and every person, created by God to be God’s representatives on earth, extending God’s kingdom throughout the whole earth, sharing God’s love and God’s light and God’s life with the world.

You are needed. You are needed by God to extend God’s kingdom of love and light and life throughout the world, wherever you are, just the way you are. You are needed.

Maybe this seems easier for some than for others. Some of us have money or education, strength or skill—obvious resources that can be used to fulfill this God-given purpose.

But whether we have these resources or not, we all have something we bring to this life—time, energy, encouraging words, compassionate deeds, a listening ear, our simple presence—things that can be used to further God’s life-giving, kingdom purposes for the world.

Maybe when we think about God’s kingdom we think about big things: justice in our society, peace in the wider world. That’s true: God’s kingdom is about those things.

But those things don’t happen instantly, all fully-grown. Remember, Jesus said that God’s kingdom starts small, like a mustard seed. It started small, with Jesus, a crucified peasant in the backwater of a long-gone empire. And it continues to start small, tiny pulses of love and light and life that magnify into waves of justice and peace.

Each moment we choose to share love instead of being indifferent to the needs of others, God’s kingdom is bursting forth. Each moment we choose to shine a light instead of complaining about the darkness, God’s reign is being revealed. Each moment we choose to sustain and enhance life instead of simply giving up and giving in to death and destruction, God’s rule is being extended.

You are needed. God has created you for a purpose, a purpose that is tied into God’s larger purposes for the world. And that purpose doesn’t change, regardless of who you are or aren’t, or what you know or don’t know, or what you can or cannot do. You are needed by God to share God’s kingdom of love and light and life throughout the world, wherever you are, just the way you are. You are needed.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

What is “Sin”?

The following is an excerpt from my sermon this past Sunday, part of our “Praying the Psalms” series. The sermon was focused on Psalm 51 and praying in confession of sin. There’s much more to be said on “sin” than can be said in a thousand words, but this excerpt gives a rough start.

My first introduction to the notion of “sin” was probably much like yours. We learn the Ten Commandments, and it’s easy: the “Thou shalt nots” are sin; and doing the opposite of the “Thou shalts,” that is also sin. Adultery? Sin. Not respecting my Mom and Dad? Sin. Lying? Sin. Stealing? Sin. Murder? Sin.

Michelangelo original sinOther commands are then added from elsewhere in the Bible (and sometimes from outside of it!), and these are then viewed through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount—or at least one common interpretation of it. So Jesus says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28)—and this is taken to mean not simply that our outward actions have roots in our inner desires, which I think is Jesus’ point, but that the desires themselves are sin. Or Jesus says that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt 5:22)—and as a kid I was filled with guilt over every bit of inner anger with my older brother, even if it never saw the light of day in my actions, because that inner flash of anger is itself seen as sin.

So we start with the Big Ten and other commands, then we internalize them and privatize them with the Sermon on the Mount. But that isn’t all. In many Christian circles, this understanding of “sin” is then mixed in with a particular view of the world: that the world is an inherently evil place that is going to be destroyed in God’s judgment, and what really matters is the eternal spiritual realm that finds its perfection in “heaven,” being in a spiritual state for eternity with God. This idea is thoroughly unbiblical, and even heretical—it’s a modern, slimline version of Gnosticism, one of the earliest Christian heresies. But it is a pervasive and tenacious view of the world among Christians.

Here’s what often happens when all this is mixed together: it leads to an idea that this life is just a kind of preparation for the next, even a kind of test. If you pass the test—if you believe the right things and avoid these sins and ask God to forgive you when you do them—then you will make it into the “heaven” that is the real point of our existence.

“Sin,” in this view, is just part of the test: it’s a sort of abstract list of “thou shalt nots” that God has come up with to test our loyalty to him. The way we’ve interpreted Genesis doesn’t help in all this. Rather than seeing God’s command to Adam and Eve as symbolic of the moral struggle we all face, from ancient Israel to today, we see it as a pretty arbitrary command—eating fruit from a particular tree—created simply as a test of Adam and Eve’s loyalty.

The end result of all this is some peculiar notions of “sin.” Sin is a list of “don’ts.” Sin is inward and private. Sin is about religion or personal morality, only applying in certain areas of life.

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about sin. At bottom the language of “sin” is simply this: it’s a way of talking about the things we think, say, or do that cause harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and therefore cause harm to the God who created everyone and all things.

There are many biblical texts I could point to that reflect this perspective of “sin as harm,” but let me choose just one: Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm (evil, wrong, kakos) to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

According to Paul, here following Jesus, the commands of the Law of Moses as summarized in the Ten Commandments are further summed up in loving others just as we want to be loved. This is what true “righteousness” is: loving others. The opposite of this, according to Paul, is “harming” others, and this is therefore “unrighteousness,” or sin. “Sin,” then, is really about “harm”—harm to oneself, to others, to the rest of creation, and ultimately, to God.

This view of “sin as harm” fits well within the larger story of God in Scripture. God created all things, including us as humans within this world, as “very good” (Gen 1:31). God created us and all living things to flourish in a full and abundant life, to grow in health and wholeness and beauty and goodness and truth, to extend God’s loving and faithful rule throughout all creation in peace and justice and joyful delight. Sin, then, is a distortion of God’s good intentions, which are always for flourishing life. Sin brings a comprehensive, deep death to ourselves and others and the rest of creation, the opposite of real life. Sin is “causing harm”: hindering or stopping or even reversing the flourishing life God our Creator wants for us, for others, and for the whole earth.

When we understand sin along these lines, it keeps us grounded in the real world, not disconnected in some special “religious” world. God isn’t concerned about us keeping a list of rules. God wants us to love others as God loves us, nurturing the flourishing life of others around us.

When we understand sin this way, it helps us keep our inner life in proper perspective. As James puts it, “When one’s desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Our inner desires are not sin. What we do with them can, if harmful, be sin: the settled dispositions and behavioral patterns we develop out of these desires, what we say because of them, what we do to satisfy them. Our inner desires are not sin. But our inner desires are the place where our attitudes, our words, and our actions take root—either for good or for harm.

When we understand sin as “harm” in this way, it opens our eyes to wider, more pervasive, sins. God is not only concerned with our private lustful or angry thoughts and how those might take root and spread into our personal relationships. God is also concerned with the way our personal sins become systemic, social evils: the way our insatiable greed and our thirst for power fuels economic oppression that keeps people in poverty; the way our lust and our dehumanizing of others fuels sexual addiction and abuse that chains people in fear and silence; the way our willful ignorance and self-indulgence fuels environmental devastation that ruins ecosystems and kills off entire species.

And when we understand sin like this, as causing harm, it is not excessively negative. Yes, what I’ve just described is terrible: sin is still sin, and there is real evil in the world. But we are not burdening our children and ourselves with a label like “totally depraved.” We are not implying that some people are beyond the scope of redemption. We are starting with a positive story—God creating all things as “very good,” for a flourishing of life in love—and that story controls the way we think even about sin and evil in the world, in others, and in ourselves.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.