The Language of Sin

The Language of Sin

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 11, 2022

The Language of Sin

Homily for Sunday, September 11, 2022
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Timothy 1:12–17

In January of 2019, the “Well” newsletter of the New York Times published an article by Julia Scheeres entitled: “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.”  Having myself grown up in an evangelical environment in the Midwest, I think I understand where Scheeres is coming from:

“Sin…” Scheeres writes, “The notion of sin dominated my girlhood… in Indiana… The list of sinful offenses seemed infinite: listening to secular music, watching secular television, saying ‘gosh,’ ‘darn’ or ‘geez’, questioning authority, envying a friend’s rainbow array of Izod shirts…. At 17, after being caught ‘fornicating’ with my high school boyfriend, I was sent to a Christian reform school where children were beaten in the name of God.  It was there that I learned that religion had nothing to do with goodness, and there’s a strong link between zealotry and hypocrisy.”

In her article, Scheeres goes on to tell how—understandably, given her circumstances—she subsequently raised her own daughter without, she says, the concept of sin.

And I want to get back to sin, but first, Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, from which we heard this morning and from which we will hear in the coming weeks…

There is a certain heavy-handedness in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, and though I say “Paul’s First Letter to Timothy,” the letter’s authorship is controversial, with many if not most scholars asserting the letter was not written by Paul.  And I bring up the letter’s authorship because the authorship matters as we consider what I call the letter’s “heavy-handedness,” its rather (shall we say) “decisive” tone about what constitutes true Christian doctrine and appropriate Christian behavior.  If Paul were the author, does this letter show a new tone Paul took later in life as he administered from afar the churches he earlier had planted?  Or—if Paul did not write First Timothy—does the letter’s heavy-handedness arise from an unknown author who, a generation or two after Paul, brought Paul’s name and reputation to bear in an attempt to suppress what he perceived to be unseemly behaviors in the Christian community to which the letter was addressed?

How we answer the questions of authorship bears on our reading of this morning’s text from the opening of 1 Timothy, a supposedly autobiographical statement from Paul in which “Paul” writes that

I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy…. and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus…  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

On the one hand, if Paul were the author, here would be a compelling testimony, an extraordinary admission by a recognized leader of the Church of having fallen short and in which he acknowledges that he is a “sinner,” and in which also he points to Christ’s abounding love and mercy as having “saved” him.  On the other hand, if Paul did not write 1 Timothy, the passage seems a specious attempt on the part of the author to win over his audience and gain credibility before “lowering the hammer” to squelch in Paul’s name what he perceived to be false teachings and unexemplary behaviors.

Assuming—as did my New Testament professor—that Paul was not the author of 1 Timothy, what strikes me about this pseudo-autobiographical passage is that the author believes an appeal to Paul’s sinful past and his subsequent “saving” by Christ would lend credibility.  To establish credibility the author might have appealed instead, for example, (as did Luke) to the story of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus road (Acts 9).  Or to establish credibility the author could have appealed (as did the authors of Ephesians and Colossians) to Paul’s having been imprisoned for the Gospel, being an “ambassador in chains,” as Ephesians puts it (Eph 6:20, see also Col 4:18).  Or to establish credibility the author could have appealed (as did Paul himself in Galatians) to Paul’s not having received the Gospel “from a human source,” but directly, “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12).  But the author chose to make his appeal for credibility not through any of these but through Paul’s sinful past and his having been “saved” by Christ Jesus, who (in his words) “came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”  Recognizing that one is a sinner in need of being saved is this author’s chosen means of establishing credibility.

Though we might be tempted, as was Julia Scheeres after her childhood experiences, to write off the language of sin, yet I would urge that we move slowly and deliberately as we consider “sin.” For it is possible that this language of sin that has been handed down to us, though it may be old, though at first it may feel uncomfortable, yet in the end it may prove beneficial.

In her small but valuable book, Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor acknowledges that while many have been put off by the language of sin—when we say “sin,” she writes, “People hear the guilt coming and leave the room”—yet “sin,” she insists, is a “helpful, hopeful word,” a word without which we would be diminished and whose absence would preclude us from finding full healing and health. “Sin” is the “fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance,” and “abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away.”

Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation and death no matter what we call them.  Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.

Taylor asserts that it is our Christian responsibility to continue to find a way to speak about sin: “Why, then, should we speak of sin anymore?” she asks.  “The only reason I can think of is because we believe that God means to redeem the world through us.”

Though the author of 1 Timothy could have appealed to others parts of Paul’s life to lend credibility—to his experience on the Damascus road, to his being imprisoned for the Gospel, to his receiving the Gospel not through any human source but directly by a revelation of Jesus Christ—by appealing to Paul’s “formerly [being] a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” and by emphasizing that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost,” the author practices speaking the language of sin and thereby ensures that we who hear his words today will yet continue to practice speaking it, too.

If I were a Times editor, and if the so-called “Well” column wanted to publish an article about “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin,” I might say, “Could we also publish an article about the helpfulness of the word ‘sin,’ because—to quote again from Barbara Brown Taylor—‘There are words… that have no equivalent… When we lose the words, we lose the hold on the realities they represent.’”  And if we drop the word “sin” from our vocabulary, then not merely our language, but our experience of forgiveness, our experience of (to quote this morning’s reading), “the grace of our Lord [overflowing for us] with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” will be diminished.  And we live in a world that stands in need of the “overflowing grace of our Lord” and the “faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

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