A deliberately provocative title, which I hope you will forgive me for.
I have been thinking about sin. This was brought home to me recently when watching the BBC programme ‘The Big Silence’, in which this statement was made-
If you have not got a pure heart, you can not see/hear God.
There is a debate as to whether this is true, and whether any of us can ever lay claim to purity of heart- but the issue has nagged at me a little, and I have learnt to listen to this kind of nagging.
Because in all the discussions, books and blogs about emerging church (in the broader sense of the term,) you do not see the word ‘sin’ used very much. Sure, it is there or there abouts in the debates about atonement and the nature of sexuality in particular, but the concept of holiness and purity as goals for life have largely been left behind. They belong to a different church movement, and between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is a respectful distance at best.
Perhaps this is because the emerging church discussion has largely started out as a reaction to the excesses of a certain kind of spirituality- it is in part revisionist and reformist, despite having sweeping influence in so many areas of church. So in rejecting fixed inflexible positions and seeking to open up possibilities for new encounters with God, and new connections with culture, the debates often assumed that participants had a common starting position- Evangelical, orthodox Christianity- with all it’s assumptions and fixed world view.
So, most of us were probably well versed in an awareness of our sinfulness, and the price paid, in terms of substitutionary atonement of Jesus. And also of how the process of maturity was one of becoming more holy- measured in terms of personal, private behaviour.
Evangelical Christianity regarded ‘the problem of sin’ as the centre of everything- and the mission of Church was to save people from the consequences of this sin. To be honest, in my experience, what happened when you had been ‘saved’ was a little more mixed. We assumed that we Christians will then be on a journey towards purity and holiness, where sins are ‘dealt with’ and we become more like Jesus.
Between you and me, this was not my experience- neither subjective nor observational. Church often became a place where external measures of maturity- such as length of time ‘on the road’ and ‘gifting’- was at odds with our real, private selves.
There was also the fact that we overemphasised the private, personal aspects of sin as opposed to other vital parts of the life of faith- serving others, working for peace and justice, living in community.
And finally there was the problem of sin-definition. Sex was right up there- particularly homosexual sex (incidentally, did anyone see this Jewish take on the issue that is causing such controversy? HT Graham Peacock) This kind of sin, along with others, depended on a particular view of Biblical authority, which has come under considerable challenge.
My contention is that as a result of these issues, the debates around what is emerging have tended to leave the issue of ‘sin’ to one side.
Anyway- back to the point of this piece. Any reading of the words of Jesus will have to acknowledge the centrality of the call to holiness- by which I mean an honest process of coming to terms with all the things within out motivations, our behaviour and our lifestyles that are not compatible with the life of Jesus within us.
And, in the old language, this sin becomes a wall separating us from God- in terms of our ability to hear from God, and to live in the flow of the Spirit in our lives. Sin does spiritual damage.
Given too that sin is a source of actual damage in our lives- to our external relationships with people and the world as well as to our inner development, then I wonder if we have let slip some important principles for life.
Our call it to be a holy nation (not a Holy Nation- if you get my drift.) In order to do this, we Christians walk a path with and towards and encounter with the Living God. And there is accountability for the way that we do this.
And if (like mine) your lives are cluttered with all sorts of things that you know they should not be- then this ought to be an issue for us all. It ought to be an issue for church- even Emerging church.
I have been thinking about how we might bring the issue of sin into the new context, and made a list of principles that made sense to me-
Focus on yourself– not other people.
Categorising other groups as sinful is a bad idea- for what ever reason.
Let those who are without sin throw stones- the rest is up to the voice of God in the life of individuals. Concentrate on listening to God, and for the rhythms of grace. Some people may need direction, but let them seek that for themselves when prompted by the Spirit.
Excluding people from your group because of sin is dangerous, and should only be an absolute last resort- where the alternative is damage to other individuals in the group, or to the group itself.
People are more important than policies.
Collective sin is possible- but again, apply this to your own group in humility.
I do not think God requires purity before he engages with us- rather he requires a contrite heart, and a desire to turn away from the stuff that we know it wrong.
Process is important- and ritual. The old practices of confession and deliberate corporate repentance.
Watch for the things that you hold secret. There may come a time to bring them into the open- in a trusted quiet place. But this requires great trust and security- and this is special, rather than ordinary.
Watch for the things that are tolerated in your community- the lessons of history teach us that in our collectives we easily accommodate to things that individually we might despise.