Living Baptismally, pt 13: On Sin and Forgiveness

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 19), 2020.

There can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to the Christian life. Plenty of passages of scripture show that—obviously our passage today from Matthew 18; but also in the only prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples (the Our Father) forgiveness is key; and even more so with the Eucharist, when in the Upper Room with the Twelve on the night when He voluntarily gave Himself up to be betrayed, He said, “Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.” Jesus gives us Himself in His Body and Blood, and His giving of Himself is for the remission of sins, the forgiveness of sins. Given that the Eucharist is the summit of Christian experience, and forgiveness of sins is central to its purpose according to Our loving Jesus, there can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to Christian life.

Saint Peter’s question to Jesus echoes this. He says, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” The practicalities of following in the footsteps of Jesus for Saint Peter and the disciples already we bound up in the seemingly unresolvable problem that sin abounds all around them. And that should no surprise us in the least, not if we pay attention to our daily human life, and know anything at all about the human condition. We live in a fallen world, and all of us sin against our sisters and against our brothers. And likewise, our brothers and sisters sin against us. But let us be clear about what the Church means by “sin.” We often might think, because wider society thinks this way, that the word “sin” is simply a Christian term for “wrong-doing,” and basically synonymous with it.

We see this demonstrated in what used to be called “sin taxes,” that is, taxes government would place upon the purchase of, say, cigarettes or alcohol—taxes on things society preferred people not so (at least publicly) and saw as wrong behavior. But the Christian meaning of sin has nothing to do with this. The Christian theology of sin begins in the recognition of the absolute necessity of the Cross to salvation. Or put more simply: sin in its primary sense is the condition of being in need of a Savior. Every human being is born in sin, because every human being is born in need of a Savior from the first breaths and cries of life. Adam and Eve were always in need of a Savior, therefore from their creation, and even the creation of Adam which preceded the creation of Even, Adam was never not in need of a Savior. Adam was born in sin, prior to any specific act of sin. Adam and Eve were in sin, in other words, before they choose to go against the will of God and eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Yet this specific act of sin, or occasion of sin—the choice to eat the forbidden fruit, and then the eating itself, for that is two sins, the choice and then the eating, with other sins to immediately follow—springs from the human condition of always, from birth, being in need of a Savior, being in need of Christ. It was because Adam and Eve were in need of a Savior—were in the condition of needing a Savior—that their act of sin occurred. And it is important to notice as well, that according to the economy of salvation which is God’s overall plan for His creation, through their act of sin, grace abounded, and they began on the hard road of living consciously within the condition of sin, the condition of needing a Savior. And, for themselves, we can reasonably speculate that they committed more acts of sin before they ran the full course of their mortal life—each and every time of committing an act of sin tied irrevocably into the prior reality of their sin, the condition of always needing a Savior. This is a condition that no one can avoid—we are never not in need of a Savior, and we can do nothing to escape that fact. All specific acts of sin by our brothers and sisters against us (and all acts of sin we commit against others) are anchored in the condition of sin we all find ourselves in, as Paul did at his conversion—prior to which he regarded himself blameless with respect to the law; after which and after being convicted by the Cross which is the glory of God, he regarded himself as the greatest of sinners, able to do good thing despite wanting to.

This is why forgiveness is central to Christian life; this is why forgiveness is central to Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself, His precious and holy Body and Blood, to us for the remission of sins. He gives us the heavenly reality of Himself to ever wake us up to the deepest reality of sin and the deeper reality of salvation only through Him. Knowing that we are filled with Him through the Eucharist, we are Him, for He is in our bodies. And our minds are transformed into the Gospel: that where sin abounds, which is everywhere and in all persons, grace abounds much, much more.