Action, Intention, or Lost?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 28, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3: 1-7
1 Peter 1: 13-25
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
13 Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14 Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15 Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20 He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21 Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
That word is the good news that was announced to you. 
This has been a big week for me, lots of writing and inspiration, and on Thursday I got to speak at chapel at Blue Ridge, and also do my yearly guest appearance in the American Humanities Class to talk about Calvinism there with the students. They are studying early American History and Literature, and so they are looking to understand the New England Puritans better. I show up to try to make the idea of a Provident Sovereign God make sense to them, to make them understand just a little bit better where the Puritans are coming from. It is never easy because it is as if it is a foreign language to them. I've done it for at least 4 years now, and always to mixed results. It's hard in such a short period of time, I mean where do you start? This year I tried to put Calvin in some historical context, beginning with notions of what Classical Paganism was, connect that idea to the Medieval Catholic Church, through the idea that many of the so called Roman and Royal converts like Constantine and Clovis, saw Jesus and the Triune God as a new more powerful Zeus rather than the sovereign all powerful creator of the universe. And then having set that idea in their heads sought to go through the Genesis creation and fall story, asking them some of the key questions that give shape to this sovereign God notion that Calvin holds up as central to his theology. Asking them questions like, "is the expulsion from the garden punishment or is it consequences?" Consequences being something set in stone before hand. . . that's what happens. . . and punishment being reactive. Asking them, if God is reacting there, "what does that say about God's omniscience and omnipotence?" Those kinds of questions always get them thinking just a little bit.
But then the other question I asked them was, what constitutes the Sin, original sin, the cause of the Fall? And it is that question I want to focus on this morning. Does sin occur when the serpent speaks the lie, and doubt creeps into a perfectly created world, for the serpent basically calls God a liar. . . problematic for a God who speaks things into existence, the very definition of truth occurs from God's speaking . . . is that where sin occurs? Or does it occur when Eve decides she wants to eat the fruit. . . i.e. in our minds, our intentions? Or finally is it the act itself? So, basically my question is: is sin an action? is sin an intention? or is sin a state of being, where we are so lost we can't even recognize truth anymore?
Have you ever thought about that? You may think that it is a pretty small thing, one of those philosophical or theological concerns that may mean something in the classroom, but really don't mean a whole lot anywhere else. You may be right in thinking that, but I really think it is one of the central questions to our existence. Even if we don't realize it, this question is at the center of many of our assumptions about life. It is at the center of how and why our laws are written and understood. It is at the center of how we are broken, and then it would also be central into the way we would go about getting ourselves fixed. . . if that fix were possible.
Western Culture is infused with this idea of a Fall, and it is almost completely nonexistent in the East. Most Eastern Religions and Philosophies, stuff like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and others are more about human beings finding their place within the natural order of the world, but in the west we have this idea of a Fall. It isn't just in the Bible either. The Greeks had their Pandora's box, where through human curiosity, out of spite towards the creator of humanity (not Zeus), Zeus creates a box that contains all of the evils in the world. It get's opened and then humans have to struggle. The Greek poet Hesiod and his Roman counterpart, saw the fall as related to the creation of the seasons. They saw the world as a perpetual spring, where all was in plenty, and people never had to plant or build shelters, we could just be and all our needs were taken care of, but then the seasons were introduced. Creating the need for work, some did, some didn't, all of a sudden you had haves and have nots, those who were strong took from those who were weak, and the violence kept escalating until what we have now. . . this is the idea that human suffering, and the ills of human nature are connected to the idea of limited resources. . . that if the plentitude of resources could be re-established, then humans would go back to being the angels we had been.
This idea of a fall, is always connected to the idea of a restoration. If perfection has been, then it could be again. So completely infused in our culture is this notion of the reperfection of humanity, whether we call it evolution, whether we call it utopia, whether we call it Progressivism, or whether we call it Salvation, the coming of the Kingdom of God. So this get's me back to our questions: intentions, actions, or a state of being so lost there is nothing we can do. If Sin is only the actions. . . then the remedy would be simple. . . we could do fix it through law, we could fix it through denying people the ability to commit sins. . . have we tried this? Isn't this the typical idea we've had throughout history? Isn't this the reason for so many laws, so many times that we have sought to legislate morality? There is a belief that perfection is just around the bend, once we can straighten out the system. . . but history would suggest that it really never works. This makes me think that there is more to it than just actions. There is the cause of these actions.
So is it then our intentions that are when sin occurs, the moment right before we act, just when we make the decision to do stuff. This would match some of what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount when he talks about anger being the sin, lust being the sin, not just the act, but the desire for the act. So then the solution is to purge ourselves of the desires. We can just remove temptation from people, create situations where people would be angels because there is no wrong for them to choose. That is the idea behind a woman wearing a birka in Muslim Tradition. . . That is also what Monks were doing when they would flagellate themselves. They would whip themselves when they had desires, trying to curb the desire to sin by connecting it to pain or negative impulse. Shock therapy is similar, so too is hypnosis. People use these techniques to lose weight or to stop smoking. Or what about drugs. More and more drugs are coming out to curb the impulses that people have, whether it is extreme emotion, inattentiveness, or depression. . . we are creating better, fully functioning human beings through chemistry, again perfecting the species by curbing the will, the decision making process. In a much more benign way, education itself fits into this idea. If the world were educated then they would have much better intentions. It seems simple, but I am skeptical.
I'm skeptical because I think our issues go much deeper, much deeper than our actions, and much deeper than our intentions. Both of these are fixable, at least on paper, and they are fixable within each of us, through internal and external factors that seem to be close to our control. That is why these notions of what sin is are so popular because it seems like we are in control of them and can fix them ourselves. We can feel pretty good about ourselves when we don't commit an act of sin. We typically end up with distinct measures, the righteous and the unrighteous, the in and the out, the sinner and the saint, and it is all so easy to see, to notice, to point fingers, to base justice on, and to judge. . . when you have sin based on actions. It is simple, and to me it is too simple, and it doesn't go far enough because those divisions seem to be rooted in sin too, they seem to be evidence not of our wholeness but again of our brokenness, our propensity to make divisions and exclusions, our need to grade, and to put people below us in some kind of moral hierarchy all designed to make ourselves feel better. "I may be this, but at least I'm not that." And our intentions, our decision making, seems to be controllable too, just like with our actions there seems to be a sense that we can judge ourselves fixed.
But we don't. Every week we confess our sin. What are we confessing when we do so? Do you ever have a week when you are good? I know I've had weeks when I can say I haven't done any "sinful" actions, and I may have had a week when I can say I haven't made any sinful decisions at least where I can remember, or as I would judge from my perspective, but I have never had a week where Sin wasn't a part of my life. The biggest reason I think it goes deeper than actions and intentions because our standards, our viewpoints, our basis for judging aren't close to enough. . . and here is the reason. . . because even our standards are corrupted by Sin.
There isn't anything about us that isn't somehow touched by sin, and that is why I think sin is deeper than our intentions and our actions. It is as if our perspective is turned upside down, that wrong and right aren't clear at all, that things are always so complicated, and that we can rationalize pretty much anything, that we can take a look at circumstances, and consequences, and completely convince ourselves that they are unrelated and untrue. It is like we each have created our own reality, based on our own perspective, that is completely independent from facts, from other people, from truth. It is like our entire world is based on lies, lies we tell ourselves and lies we tell each other.
That was the basis of my talk at Blue Ridge on Thursday Morning at chapel. I called it baggage, and said that we all have it. We all have this stuff we bring along with us. Things that we add to ourselves over time. I read for them my poem about the bunny. The one that has clothes on, and so can no longer run and escape. He is unwilling to cast off the clothes and it leads to his destruction. I asked them, how many things have we added to ourselves that we are unable to unload, be they our history, our actions, the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, the way we see the world. How hard is it to tell the truth or even to tell what is true in this world? How hard is it to even know who we are? How much of even our definitions of ourselves are swamped with lies and partial truths, corners sanded off to make palatable for ourselves, just so we can look at ourselves in the mirror.
I'm reminded of one of the great scenes in the movie, "Glory" about a Black Union Regiment during the Civil War. It was Denzel Washington's first Oscar win. There is the scene where he has been asked to carry the flag, and he says, "I ain't fightin this war for you sir. . .
Trip: I ain't fightin' this war for you, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: I see.
Trip: I mean, what's the point? Ain't nobody gonna win. It's just gonna go on and on.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Can't go on forever.
Trip: Yeah, but ain't nobody gonna win, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Somebody's gonna win.
Trip: Who? I mean, you get to go on back to Boston, big house and all that. What about us? What do we get?
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Well, you won't get anything if we lose.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: So what do you want to do?
Trip: Don't know, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: It stinks, I suppose.
Trip: Yeah, It stinks bad. And we all covered up in it too. Ain't nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: How do we do that?
Trip: We ante up and kick in, sir. But I still don't want to carry your flag.
Sin is something that we are all covered up in. . . all of us, Ain't nobody clean. It's inside us. It's outside us. It's something that influences everything about us from the day we are born. And I don't necessarily think it is a disease, like only a flaw, some cosmic thing that shifted. . . when we were expelled from the garden. .. but rather like the work of a lie, a lie so simple and complete that it infiltrates every piece of our existence. . . like God is a liar. There is no truth. Nothing matters. It's all just in your head. Everybody has their point of view. Truth is just relative. . . to perspective. . . to culture. . . to whatever. . . and the stinky unspoken truth about relative truth is, that it is just a bunch of lies, for who is in a position, as a human, to tell the complete truth?
Augustine put it like this: and it is your Prayer of Preparation this morning. . .
Man's original capacities included both the power not to sin and the power to sin (posse non peccare et posse peccare).
In other words we could do both at that point, the world was pure and we had free will, the freedom to choose either.
In Adam's original sin, man lost the posse non peccare (the power not to sin) and retained the posse peccare (the power to sin)--which he continues to exercise.
We lost the power not to sin. . . see Augustine is seeing things in terms of actions, but he is taking the reason as to why we have to do the action in something behind it, some change in our power, our state. I want to go that step further, connecting it not to a cosmic changing of nature, but of the clouding of our minds. We believe that lie in the garden, and that lie introduces all of our own lies because it gives us license to define ourselves, define existence, define the truth. . . because if God isn't defining through his creative speaking of the Word, than there isn't any.
I said a minute ago, in this world of lies, who is in a position to tell the truth, who lives outside of sin enough to have a credible truth bound view point. . . . Only Christ. and that is exactly what Christ does, he testifies to the truth. . . in words, in actions, in deeds, and shows that the truth, changes our perspective on the limitations of ourselves and the limitations of the world. Christ shows that there is so much more than we thought ever possible, and Christ shows us that what we had thought was based on lies. . . Sin. . . and often these lies make us comfortable. . . and we don't like when they are shaken. That is why following is so difficult, that is why it is the harder path, that is why many choose the darkness instead of the light. . . it is known, it is comfortable, and it is based on our own perspective, but to see outside of ourselves is that start. . . that is why loving God and loving our neighbors is what we are called to do. . . doing so breaks us outside of our lies, and allows us to see truth, to experience truth, and to be reborn to a new creation one uncorrupted by such lies. Is it possible, we ask ourselves, but as I was driving here this morning, the song “It’s gonna take a lot of love” was on, with its claim that “It’s gonna take a lot of love to change the way things are.” And that is right, and nothing else will ever do, luckily the love that God has for us as shown through Jesus Christ is steadfast, infinite, and unconditional, and that is why it can break through the curtain of sin.