Advent Mission One: Galatians 5.13-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alva, OK
Do we like sin? I don’t mean do we like to sin. The answer to that is obvious. I mean, do we like the idea of sin, that is, the very notion that there is a category of behavior or a set of attitudes that count as Sins. I think we might prefer “inappropriate behaviors” or “unhelpful attitudes.” These carefully morally neutral phrases allow us to wiggle around the problem of defending absolute moral standards, the problem of standing up for Right and against Wrong. The word “sin” demands our attention in a way that no other theological word does. Words like Incarnation and Redemption and Resurrection are HUGE! They are too big, too large and complex to soak into our daily routine, our hum-drum pecking about getting things done. But Sin. Well, Sin goes straight to the heart of what it means to be believers. Calling this or that act or attitude a sin immediately places the actor into an intricate web of meaning, reference, history, spirituality, and religious commitment. The act is not just inappropriate or “uncalled for” or rude—it’s a SIN!
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s take a controversial subject like homosexuality. For centuries, men and women with same-sex attractions were “handled” in western culture in basically two ways: religiously or legally, that is, the idea of homosexuality was defined in religious terms (morally disordered, sodomy, sin, etc.) and in terms of the law (crime, penalty, violation). It wasn’t really until the late nineteenth century that homosexuality received both its scientific name and a whole range of scientific terms and treatments to go with it. Now we have a huge body of literature from the scientific world along with a huge body of literature from the religious world and legal world to handle same-sex attraction. None of this touches on the more recent political treatments of homosexuality. My point here is that a human act can be understood through a number of competing explanatory languages. We can understand homosexuality as a sin to be forgiven in religion, as a crime to be punished in the law, as a pathology to be cured in medicine, or as a alternative lifestyle choice to be celebrated or condemned, depending on your political proclivities.
Labeling an act or an attitude as a sin instantly places that act or attitude into a big machine, a language system that determines how we treat it. And that label, “sin,” that description requires that the act and the actor be handled according to an entirely different set of rules and guidelines. The actor is now a Sinner, and we can no longer avoid the problem of Right/Wrong, Good/Evil, Obedience/Rebellion, Virtue/Vice, and Salvation/Damnation.
As committed Christians, I would argue that we are first and foremost about our relationship with the Father through His Son in the Holy Spirit. Other humane discourses might require our allegiance momentarily, but the bottom-line for us, faithful Catholics, must be obedience to revealed truth as taught by the Church and understood within the limits of human intelligence. Thankfully, as Catholics we know that there is no fundamental conflict between faith and reason, so we are free to pay attention to other discourses w/o chucking the faith or becoming fundamentalists!
OK! Let’s get to what sin is. Here’s an excellent definition from the Catechism: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and the right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law’”(n. 1846). Perfectly clear. Let’s break that down a bit and look at the pieces.
First, sin is an offense. It is a transgression or a trespass, a violation or breach. Second, it is a violation against reason, an embrace of irrationality or a welcoming of uncontrolled passion, an act without proper, rational deliberation. It is a trespass on truth, a willful lie, a distortion or knowing twist of what is real—what is Good and Beautiful. And sin is a crime against right conscience, a deliberate move against one’s properly formed sense of the Right, an assault on what you recognize as God’s will. Third, sin is a failure to love God, neighbor, and self; because, fourth, we are inordinately attached to some good in the world, some temporary good like food, sex, money, power, etc. In other words, we have replaced God in our lives with some other good, replaced The Good with a good and now we worship an idol. Fifth, sin injures who we are as individual creatures of God and it injures who we are together as a community of God’s creatures. This is personal sin and social sin, respectively.
Clearly, as the Catechism says, “Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil”(n. 1850). All sin then, great and small alike, is like the first sin of Adam and Eve. These two sinned—violated God’s love for them—by believing and acting on the serpent’s lie that they could become “like God” w/o God, in other words, they believed the lie that they could be gods, deciding as they willed which acts were good and which were evil. Sound familiar? When we take it upon ourselves, as creatures of a loving God, to determine for ourselves what is Good and what is Evil, we take upon ourselves the judgment proper to God alone; we take upon ourselves the vain task of creating reality using ourselves as the blueprint, our desires, our wills, our wants and, guess what?, we get along with these all of our faults, our flaws, our pathologies, our crimes and illusions. Instead of living now as if we were already in heaven, we brutally chain ourselves to our limits, our smallest ambitions, our grandest mistakes, and our meanest tendencies. We repeat the Fall and suffer the consequences.
If all of this is true—and it is—then we have to wonder why anyone sins at all! Why do we insist on pitting ourselves against the love of God, against the charity and mercy He has shown us in our creation and in our salvation through Jesus Christ? The Catechism’s definition tells us a little about why we sin. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, this evening’s reading, tells us even more. Basically, we sin when we choose the works of the flesh over the works of the Spirit. This is not to say that every choice for the flesh is a sin. We need to eat, drink, have babies, etc. But it is when we are facing a choice between a fleshy work and a spiritual work and we choose the fleshy work over and against the spiritual work that we sin. This choice is made in freedom—an abuse of freedom, by the way—and you are choosing to pay attention to this world and to use this world’s things to satisfy a disordered want, a lack of some sort.
It is not disordered to want food. It is disordered to want to eat your own weight in food at one sitting. It is not disordered to want sex. It is disordered to want sex outside the marriage bond. It is not disordered to be angry about an injustice. It is disordered to be angry about a social slight. And once you eat your weight in food at one sitting and have sex outside the marriage bond and get angry because someone has slighted you socially, once you have done these things, you have replaced The Good—God—with a good—food, sex, anger—and you have attempted to make yourself into a god—one who determines what is Good and what is Evil.
Now that we have a good definition of sin, I want to take you back to our attitudes about sin itself. Earlier I said that we have something of a tendency to think that it is better to talk in terms of “inappropriate behaviors” or “unhelpful attitudes.” These are carefully morally neutral terms that do not allow us any room to argue about objective moral standards or absolute Good and Evil. These terms have a very particular use in the workplace or the classroom. Basically, they are designed to allow us to express disapproval of someone’s behavior or attitude w/o appearing to be “judging them,” in other words, we can say to someone, “Your attitude right now is unhelpful” and really mean something like “Your smart mouth is causing me problems. I wish you would just shut up!” These two phrases (and all their kin) are dodges; they are faux assertions that mean almost nothing in themselves and simply disguise a desire to make a moral judgment. Though controlling this impulse is good, controlling it in this way—using these dodgy, morally empty phrases—reinforces the false notion that there is no place for moral evaluation in our daily lives or that differing moral viewpoints should be reduced to psychobabbly “I-statements” and treated with equal respect, regardless of the potential social damage some moral viewpoints will cause.
My point here is simple: when we, as Catholics, replace our moral vocabulary with pop-psychology terms or “educationese,” we risk losing out on enchanting our workplace with the Spirit of love that God calls us to carry into the world. When we honor Political Correctness with a sacrifice of truth on the altar of “tolerance,” we sacrifice more than fact, we sacrifice identity, history, family, and faith. That’s right! We sacrifice it all b/c there are but a few delicate steps between surrendering our public moral language and surrendering our necks. The linchpin issue here is sin—its reality for us, its effect on our community, and, finally, its forgiveness. The pressure to adopt morally neutral language comes from those who would see our relationship with God damaged b/c they themselves fear what a relationship with God might mean for themselves. Without a proper understanding of what it means to disobey God, to sin, we cannot understand what it means for us to obey, to be in right relationship with him.
I’m not suggesting here that you run back into your offices in the morning spouting the Ten Commandants or flinging moral condemnations left and right. I am suggesting that you become more aware of how gentle pressures in the workplace slowly creep up on your core beliefs, your basic virtues and try to wrest from you your sense of being a Christian in the world. Righteousness is surely about knowing where we stand with God, and as Paul makes clear: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.” That means living, working, playing, loving, serving, dying in ways plainly in the life of the Spirit. Your witness to God where you are, your obedience to His will for you, is your ministry as priests, prophets, kings. Please understand then: the move to remove God from our public discourse is rooted in a fear of anything being called Sin. When we get to the point where nothing is sinful, anything will be permissible and we will have failed to minister to the world in Jesus’ name.
So, let me ask you this: do you have a healthy sense of sin? I mean, do you understand what sin is, how it happens, why it happens, and what to do about it when it does? My experience as a priest tells me that Catholics these days tend to fall into one of two very large demographics when it comes to sin. Those for whom everything is a sin and everyone a sinner. And those for whom nothing is a sin and no one is a sinner. No one ever accuses me of being shy, so I’ll say it now: both of these are nonsense, both are heretical.
The first group is perhaps the smaller of the two. Since VC2 we have as a Catholic culture shrugged off much of the odd anti-body spirituality borrowed from the French Janenists. This spirituality condemned the flesh as evil, called for constant purification of the body for the benefit of the soul, and just generally held a rather gloomy outlook on life. Much of that spirituality immigrated to the US and we went through a period where everything was a sin—a mortal sin, at that!—every thought, word, and deed was tinged with sticky sin. No good deed was purely good. No selfless word was truly selfless. And we were never confident that we moved in God’s grace. There was a persistent fear that God was playing a GOTCHA! game with our souls, so we dwelled not in love or mercy, but abiding fear and tragedy. This fear is translated into a constant worry about offending God, about crossing boundaries with Him or violating His will. Sin becomes the language that we use to talk about God and our relationship with Him. This understanding of sin denies God’s love. It fails to grasp mercy and fails to respect God’s promise of rescue. There is an almost obsessive quality to the need for spiritual cleanliness—understood in sacramental terms as a need for frequent confession and a deep sense of being unworthy to receive communion. No amount of priestly assurance or cajoling or teaching touches this Catholic’s gnawing anxiety that he or she sits on the edge of Hell, wobbling toward the fire.
The second is definitely more prominent in the Church. No doubt this group constitutes most Catholics to varying degrees. Some theologians have interpreted the documents of VC2 in ways directly contrary to the plain text of the documents and contrary to the received tradition out of which they were written. One of the most egregious examples of this is the use of the document, Diginatius humanae, to undermine our proper Catholic sense of freedom and conscience. Without this proper understanding of freedom and conscience, we can (and have) easily arrive at the conclusion that I create what is good and evil, I decide what is right and wrong for me.
The oft-quoted bit from this document is this: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience”(n. 3). OK. Good enough. This is perfectly Catholic so long as you understand conscience properly. What happened after VC2, however, is that purely secular notions of freedom were imposed on the language of this document and we ended up with Catholic theologians, clergy, and laity arguing that VC2 has declared that nothing is sinful unless my conscience—my private arbitrator of truth—tells me it is. The problem here is that the above quoted is what gets quoted. What doesn’t usually get quoted is the sentence immediately preceding the favored quote. It reads: “On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience”(n.3). Exactly! Conscience mediates divine truth. Conscience does not create truth or decide the goodness or badness of an act. Conscience is our God-given faculty, God’s gift to us for recognizing His truth. There is a huge moral difference between “creating a truth” and “finding a truth.” Can you tell me difference between “baking a pie” and “finding a pie”? Big difference.
The result of this willful misinterpretation of the DH is that we have at least two generations of Catholics who feel unbound by the teachings of the Church, the teachings of scripture, the magisterial office of the bishop and the pope, any reason or deliberation. It is enough for them to shout the magic words, “In conscience, I do not believe that!” Please hear me plainly, folks: say that with great care. You might be committing your soul to a truth. Or you might be selling it to a lie. Without the guidance of the Spirit through His Church, you just don’t know. And if it isn’t the teaching authority of the Church—for all the problems of the teachers!—that guides us in the tradition, who helps us then to understand? Who tells us again and again the faith story of this family? Who recognize falsehood and has the courage to label it as such?
You are not freed from sin by declaring nothing sinful. You are simply once again enslaved to falsehood. It is not enough to invoke the voodoo of conscience to justify your sin, your dissension, your disobedience. A properly formed conscience can misunderstand a moral teaching. It can not quite fully grasp the fullness of a teaching. You can even disagree with the way in which a teaching is taught or communicated or argued for. But a properly formed conscience stands humble before 2,000 years of tradition and rather than saying defiantly “I won’t believe that!” says instead “I will believe it to the degree that I am able right now and will continue in humility to learn more.”
To believe that every human act is a sin denies God’s love. To believe that nothing a human can do is sinful denies God’s will. We are freed to follow Christ in the Spirit. We are freed from sin so that we are free to obey. Paul says that we are never freer than when we are slaves to Christ. How odd! But when we understand that our perfection lies in Christ, then it makes sense to say that being obedient to the source of our perfection is necessary.
Let’s conclude by looking a little more closely at Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I have been drawing on this reading all through this homily, but now I would like to be more specific about the text. Paul teaches some amazing doctrine in this passage. Taking each in turn: first, he shows us how to use our freedom to oppose sin; second, he gives us a quick teaching on Jesus’ first commandment of love; third, he shows us how sin arises out of a conflict between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit, listing in some detail prominent sins; fourth, he teaches us about the fruits of the Spirit; and finally, fifth, he encourages us to follow Spirit.
Look at how we are to use our freedom in Christ: to serve one another through love! That love is not ours from our own hearts, but God’s from His very nature. We are able to love one another b/c God loved us first and most. Paul quotes Jesus when he says that whole of the Law hangs on the commandment of Love: love God, love neighbor, love self. But what does any of that mean? How can we tell if we are loving, if we are loved? One easy test: do you will the Good for others? Do you actively seek out and pursue what is best everyone in your life? Are you stingy, mean, tight with your affection? Paul says to love and not to bite and devour one another, not to consume one another. We are not hungry dogs at a dinner bowl, anxious over the lack of plenty. We are children of a Father who loves us and gives us all that need to grow in holiness with Him. Only our sin, our disobedience blocks the flood of blessings, diverts all the good He pours out for us.
Look at the sins Paul lists for us: idolatry, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, selfishness, dissensions, factions, bouts of drunkenness, and many others. What’s the common thread here? God doesn’t want us to have any fun, right? No. God is a prude with no sense of humor? No. The common thread is this: each of these acts, each of these attitudes will set up an altar in your heart and demand your devotion, require your honor, your allegiance, and your very life. Each will consume you like fire on fall’s leaves. Sin demands a wholehearted welcome, a warm embrace, and it will leave you lonely, cold, and starving. It can’t do anything else. When we sin we turn from God to Nothingness and nothingness cannot feed a soul hungry for love.
Chew on sin and spit out ashes. Swallow, if you will, and burn from the inside out. Nothing good can come from sin. Nothing true or beautiful for you will ever come from sin. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit are joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. What’s common here? God writes for Hallmark? No. God is a hippie on an acid-love trip? No. The fruits of the Spirit are ways that we use our gifts from God to serve others and the ways that God comes to us to perfect His love in us. Good works are not about being socially conscious do-gooders. Good works are not about parading around showing others how open we are to difference and diversity and how ready we are to engage those left out. Surely we can do-gooders and surely we can be open to engaging those left out. But the point of the works of Spirit is the perfection of God’s love in us and among us in preparation for the coming of His Kingdom.
Sin is real. You know this. To pretend otherwise is foolish. To dress sin up in the latest fashions from the university or the coolest new outfits from the lab is pointless. Don’t we feel the burn of sin? Don’t we see the consequences of our disobedience? Tangled lives, stunted relationships, wasted chances to love? Sin is hard. Love is easy. Sin is complicated. Love is simple. Sin takes time, energy, wasted talent. Love takes a YES. And a life of YES’s—a life of service. Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh. Have you kept out a part? Saved back a piece to rot and stink? Give it all! If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Christ gave it all. Follow him. Give it all.