22 Jun 2008
“If by [Adam’s] transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” (Romans 5:15) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
On Tuesday I attended Amanda’s Recognition Day at Deerfield Elementary School. It marks the completion of elementary school for 6th graders. The Assistant Principal told them to be children while they could because their teen years, young adult years and beyond were just around the corner. He began his remarks by calling the 6th graders “boys and girls,” and he emphasized that theme throughout his talk by saying that phrase repeatedly: boys and girls.
The biblical verse I just read from Romans is influential in the formation of our church’s identity. This biblical verse is part of the reason that we are different. We have a unique take on God’s creation that you won’t hear in too many other places. It’s of special importance to us and our whole theology. Just like the Assistant Principal’s “boys and girls” I’d like to emphasize the idea that our church is different, unique and special. Churches are the not the same because people are not the same. It’s not about God; it’s about us. God can accept worship in many ways, but people can’t. I may not feel comfortable in another person’s church, and they may not in mine. This doesn’t imply right or wrong, better or worse; it just means people are different, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So again let me say that our church is different, unique and special. I do not feel at all close to theologies and preachers who like to emphasize God as judge, and people as sinners. Life is tough enough without teaching and preaching that God is waiting to make it tougher in the next life, and that while most people are not perfect most people are also not terribly sinful either. This isn’t an excuse to take it easy when it comes to God and our own spirituality. As a matter of fact, it’s a challenge. It’s a proclamation that invites us to come closer to God not because we’re afraid of His judgment, but because we love God. Have you ever had to go to a social function that you just didn’t want to attend, but to not go would bring down more trouble than it was worth? Compare that feeling with the fun you have with people you really like sharing time with. They both get you to the same place, but if you understand the difference between the two, you also understand the difference between preaching God’s judgment and preaching God’s love.
This church of ours appreciates this difference, and that’s one of the reasons why we are different, unique and special. Some people can devoutly appreciate God’s love shared with those who love Him and who are faithful to Him, but they also devoutly respect the idea that God must punish those who ignore Him and His laws. Our church respects the idea of God as judge, and teaches that the just will be rewarded by God and the sinful punished by Him. But we also temper that judgment with the divine revelation as lived by Jesus because it is easy to replace God’s terms of judgment with our own. We expect recompense from judgment. You murdered, you may face execution. You stole, we may steal years away from your life and put you behind bars. God’s judgment isn’t so much about restitution as it is about rehabilitation. God wants the person back more than He needs to punish, and this is made clear by the cross. Jesus suffers not to be able to condemn us, but to change us. God’s judgment is revealed in the unavoidably distinctive terms of Jesus’ words from the cross: “‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’” This is not human judgment, but God’s, and we should be careful to not confuse or blur the two.
God as judge is made a universal threat, however, when some churches choose to teach Augustine’s 4th century creation of original sin, the notion that every single person is liable to God’s judgment because every single person is born a sinner. We are sinful because we are human; it’s part of our nature; it’s unavoidable. This is what Augustine taught, and this is what some churches have bought. We are different, unique and special because we believe sin can only be freely and knowingly chosen. It’s not of our nature; it’s of our free will. Augustine came-up with the idea of original sin because the practice of infant baptism was beginning to spread. In the 4th century many infants died, and therefore, many parents began to baptize their babies so that they could enter heaven because it was taught that without baptism they could not. Augustine, a theologian, had to find a way to explain this spreading practice, and what he came-up with is the notion that a baby’s baptism is necessary because that baby is sinful because his or her parents are sinful. Even if the parents were saintly, for Augustine, the very act of conception marked them as sinful. James O’Donnell, a Georgetown University professor and author of a much-acclaimed biography of Augustine, concludes his book about the whole life of this 4th century theologian by commenting on this one particular point: “Original sin is a cultural creation of the first order, a geological upheaval that raises mountains where none were suspected before.”(p. 332)
We are different, unique and special because we choose not to teach and preach such “cultural creations.” I performed two baptisms in the past couple of weeks: The first an adult, the second a child. In the first I included the phrase “cleanse him;” for the child, however, as I was taught in seminary, I omitted that phrase. We baptize to make a person a Christian. Sin is only ancillary; it’s only a part of baptism if the person has reached the age where sin can be chosen. It is not there at birth. The verse from Romans makes this clear. Even if sin is part of our nature from Adam, our common human ancestor, says Paul, it is obliterated and annulled by the gracious gift of Jesus Christ. The humanity of Jesus trumps the humanity of Adam. Original sin is a denial of the power of Christ, and this is why we teach instead that creation is not sinful but rather a sign of “divine love.” May this different, unique and special church of ours help us to always appreciate the “gracious gift” of Jesus Christ, and for this we pray in Him most holy of names. Amen. (+)