Sin

Living in The Story Readings for Week 3

Genesis 3-11

Psalm 5

Psalm 10

Psalm 53

Romans 1–3

John 9-12

Reading the Old Testament

As you read Genesis 3–11, notice how these stories seem to be set out of time. Next week when we start with Abraham and the patriarchs, we will see more geographies and genealogies and we’ll recognize that the telling of those stories is more history-like. But the opening chapters of Genesis tell us primeval mythological stories of origins.

“Mythological” is not a slur. Myth is one way to speak about things that are deeply true even if they are not factual or historical. Consider this description from Britannica:

Myth has existed in every society. Indeed, it would seem to be a basic constituent of human culture . . .

A people’s myths reflect, express, and explore the people’s self-image. The study of myth is thus of central importance in the study both of individual societies and of human culture as a whole.[1]

Myths are the stories we tell that help us understand where we come from and what is the meaning of our existence. All our human religions include this type of narrative as a way to point toward deep truth that is difficult to understand or explain.

Every religion is true one way or another; true, that is, when understood metaphorically. But when religion gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, we get into trouble. (American Christianity has its own special challenges when it comes to getting “stuck” in metaphor.) But when we allow ourselves to get unstuck, to break free from literal, concrete thinking, then we begin to discover truth that is wider, deeper, and higher than simple facts.

As you read these fascinating stories in this section of Genesis, resist asking questions such as, “Did the serpent really talk?” or “Where did Cain get his wife?” or “How could all those animals fit into an ark?” Instead challenge yourself to ask the big questions, What does this mean? What do these stories teach us about who God is and who we are as humans?

As You Read the Psalms

“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.'” The psalmist’s blunt description makes us think that our poet has suffered too many fools and has had to endure the consequences of chaos that can occur when other people live their lives without wisdom. They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts, they have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; “they eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon God” (Ps 53). The psalmist pictures God earnestly searching for wisdom among the humans, the Holy One calling out for righteousness. But, as in the Garden of Eden, the Creator only finds folly. “There is no one who does good; No, not one.”

We modern Christians believe in the redemption Christ Jesus brought into the world, but we too still suffer fools. And we still act the fool. We remember all of us humans are both good and bad, right and wrong, wise and foolish. But we—like people of faith have always done—trust anyway, because this faith is an eschatological faith. That is, we live with confidence in the here–and–now because we ground ourselves in the then–and–there; we trust in the ultimate shalom God is bringing for all creation. This trust allows us to experience a peace that passes understanding (Phil 2) because we believe that the Christ already has brought God’s reign into the world even as we know it is not yet completed. Peace and salvation are not quite yet complete.

And so the psalmist puts his faith in God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he trusts that the Surprising God of Unfathomable Faithfulness will—one day, some how—make everything right. And like the psalmist, we too hold onto hope and continue to put our trust in the Unfathomable Faithfulness of our ever Surprising God. We too give witness to the already-and-not-yetcharacter of the salvation the Christ has brought (and continues to bring!) into lives of all of us both/and people.

As You Read the New Testament

Paul’s thesis statement for the Letter to the Romans may well be the thesis statement for his entire life’s work; Paul understood himself to be one called and sent, one saved and spent for the sake of the gospel. Paul’s confidence in the gospel is grounded in the power of the one true Triune God: the eternal will of the Father, the faithfulness of the Son, and the life-giving love of the Spirit. “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God . . . ” (Rom 1:16). Paul was a deeply pious Jew immersed in the story of Israel as the chosen people of God. Drawing from the rich conceptual history within the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul proclaims that “the gospel of God” is also “the gospel concerning his Son.”

The gospel is God’s story, God’s movement, God’s purpose and grace, God’s action on behalf of all creation. It is “the gospel of God,” Paul insists, the good news of, from, and about the one True God permeating all creation from the very beginning. Paul’s spirit-breathed brilliance was his ability to think and then rethink the meaning and mystery of God’s story in light of the life–death–resurrection of Jesus Christ. The conversion of his mind, his fresh examination of previously fixed conceptions, his complete surrender to the sheer force of God’s story reimagined led him to perceive and proclaim a message of God’s reconciliation of all people. God indeed has kept covenant with Abraham and now has created one family of God from all the families of the earth. This reconciliation has happened in and through the Christ. It is God’s will, determination, action, word, and act enfleshed in the life and death of Jesus that is the turning point of history.

The gospel concerning God’s Son flows from the narrative story of Israel. For Paul, Jesus is herald of the good news, legitimate king in the line of David, the anticipated Messiah, beloved of the Father, Son of God. Paul’s narrative reading of the ancient text as the story of God allowed him to see Jesus the Christ as the continuation and climax of this ongoing story and thus proclaim Jesus “Son of God” as the “gospel of God.”

“Son” language in the biblical story is multivalent vocabulary, but Paul proclaims it is in the resurrection that the human Jesus was shown to be, was marked out, as the authentic expression, demonstration, and incarnation of the one true God. As Alan Lewis said, whether “in this Son, God had become a perfect human, or that in this human, God had found a perfect Son,”[2] this Jesus, a son of Israel, was declared to be the perfect Son of God.

In Romans 1–3, see how Paul is retelling the story of humanity. Watch how he alludes to good creation and a generous Creator and then considers how sin twisted and bent this goodness into something ugly and hopeless. As you read, consider how Genesis 3 as well as the Psalms and the prophets hover in the background of Romans 1–3. As a faithful Hebrew, Paul was immersed in the story from the Hebrew Scriptures, and he wrote this letter to the church in Rome in order to explore and explain how God, through the Christ, continues to redeem the brokenness and hopelessness of creation. Now, because of Jesus, redemption has taken on a whole new meaning.

Watch Paul pound the pagan Gentiles for their immoral, unethical, idolatrous culture, and then watch him pivot and pound the Jews for their self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Then this astonishing statement, especially astounding to the faithful, practicing Jews of his day: “There is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Rom3). All of us are sinners, Paul insists, each of us individually and all of us together. Naming, recognizing, and owning up to this hopeless dilemma is the only way for us to truly appreciate the radical grace of the gospel made known in Jesus Christ.

Those of us who are faithful, practicing religious folks may look at Paul’s list of evils and reassure ourselves that we are not that bad (we humans are very good at rationalizing and justifying ourselves). But Spirit nudges us to see ourselves clearly and to name ourselves honestly. In order to begin to grasp the magnitude of the grace of our redemption, we must first grasp the deep significance of our fallen-ness. So Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, God’s solution to the problem of sin, astounds us even more. For Jews and Gentiles alike, for the wise and for the foolish, for the good and the bad . . . there is no distinction!

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus . . .

Rom 3:21–26

As you compare Psalms 5 and 10 to these opening chapters of Romans, you will recognize how Paul’s treatise on sin echoes the psalmist’s powerful descriptions. Also note that the consequences of the sins of some people will always infect and influence the lives of other people. We who are bound together within this human community live in a complex interdependent human ecosystem that has very real consequences in lives other than our own.

As You Read the Gospel

As you read John 9–12, pay special attention to the discussion Jesus and the disciples have about the topic of sin in chapter 9, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” They assumed, as many people still do, that sickness is the result of sin. Today, we might call this “blaming the victim.”

Here’s some helpful background on the gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic” gospels because their vision and version is similar to one another (syn = similar + optic = seeing). John’s gospel, however, is quite different because it has its own unique chronology, geography, theology, and style.

As you read the Gospel according to John, notice that it has no birth narrative, no shepherds (Luke), no wise men (Matthew) and significantly, no story of a miraculous virgin birth. There is no last supper with breaking the bread and taking the wine in remembrance. John tells the story of the Christ event in his own deeply theological and poetic way.

Also as you read, understand that in the canonical chronology of our New Testament, Paul wrote his version of the good news of Jesus Christ first. His letters to congregations during the 50s and 60s proclaimed the gospel not in story, but rather in practical, lived theology. Mark probably came next, around 70 CE. Then Matthew and Luke wrote around the year 90. Finally, around the turn of the century, John wrote his gospel. These gospel writers’ way of proclaiming the gospel was different from Paul’s; their approach was to craft their Christology into story. It was a new and distinctive narrative theology that told the Jesus story by making connections back to the story of Israel.

Each gospel writer demonstrated his own way to reread the Hebrew Scriptures and apply a Christ hermeneutic, a way of interpreting The Story through the lens of the Christ. God’s redemption of human sinfulness began at the foundation of the world then unfolded in divine faithfulness to Israel. God’s work of grace and salvation was now seen to continue and to find its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Such thoughtful, prayerful reflection is the origin of Christian theology.

Reflection Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation

I borrowed this title from Barbara Brown Taylor’s fine little book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. In these helpful essays, Taylor explores scriptural models and traditional Christian theology that frequently use medical or legal language to describe sin. If we think of sin as sickness then its solution is a healing. If we think of sin as crime then its solution must be a punishment. But in her effort to recover “the lost language of salvation,” Taylor prefers a third way that acknowledges the core problem is broken relationship.

In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin.

The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives.[3]

The powerful story of Les Misérables demonstrates this “bitter medicine with power to save lives” just about as well as any story I’ve ever read. In the years since the musical has been on the stage, more than sixty million people have experienced the Gospel according to Victor Hugo. While the story breaks our heart with its dark picture of human brokenness, the gospel breaks our hearts wide open with its promise of unlikely redemption and amazing grace. The 2012 movie shows Jean Valjean wrestling with his choices in a small chapel under a crucifix, an image of the body of Christ also broken by the brokenness of the world. It’s a powerful scene as Valjean comes to repentance and gives himself over to redemption.

But this grace, he discovered, must be lived day-by-day, moment-by-moment, and his choice for redemption needed to be made again and again. Valjean found that he must repeatedly reorient himself to forgiveness in order to remember who he is—a broken man made new, a lost man redeemed. Even after the priest’s redemption and after his own repentance, the circumstances of his life demanded that he consistently recommit himself to stand firmly in grace in order to find the wisdom and power to truly live in redemption, in order to live as an agent of reconciliation for others.

This is not easy. We humans are naturals at self-righteousness and we have excellent skills at self-deception. Martin Luther (and Augustine before him) talked about sin as “the self curving in on itself,” Homo in se incurvatus. This “curving” I think is part of what it means to be human, each of us individually and all of us together. The nations we build, the societies we form, even the churches that are supposed to offer a radical alternative to this universal human tendency—even the church all too often is a “self curving in on itself.”

When Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome, his description of human sinfulness was stark and startling. Something like the Genesis description of the downward spiral of humanity in the days of Noah. Something like the heart breaking cries of the psalmist. Something like the systemic brokenness of the world of Jean Valjean. Something like the ugly realities of ovens of Auschwitz, or killing fields of Cambodia, or slave ships in the Middle Passage. Something like the gut wrenching stories we keep hearing every time we open the newspaper or turn on our TV.

The human condition is shot through with a sense of separation from God, with a reality of estrangement from one another, and with a deep awareness of fragmentation within our own souls. Our bending in upon ourselves is an embedded pattern that perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Awareness of these realities can spiral us down into despair. Or it can be the soil within which grace grows roots and redemption bears fruit.

Surely Paul wrote Romans in conversation with the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 3: “Where are you,” the Creator calls, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. “Where are you? I miss you.” This sad story says the humans were hiding, their eyes opened to the estrangement that had now come into existence. Their eyes opened to their new independence that felt a lot like isolation. The humans were now untethered and set adrift from the Source of their life. That’s what broken relationship looks like and feels like.

These broken relationships are everywhere we turn, and they break our hearts. Or at least, I hope this breaks our heart; I daresay it breaks God’s heart. Even so, I think Creator created this world knowing full well what pain was in store. I think God created this world knowing full well the cross was in view. The stories from Genesis tell us God calls out, “where are you?” and God’s own people hide themselves. The prologue from John sadly agrees:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The opening chapters from Romans affirm this human reality as well:

But even though people knew God, they would not honor God as God or give thanks . . .

The story of judgment in Genesis 3 used to trouble me until I experienced an epiphany in one bright moment several years ago. The pronouncements of judgment in this story are not necessarily a litany of arbitrary punishments imposed by an angry, vengeful Creator. Rather, consider that this is God’s heart-heavy statement of a new reality, the fact that actions have consequences. Creator didn’t need to impose punishment on these hapless creatures; they themselves opened Pandora’s box so that now the natural consequences of their brokenness and stubbornness began to have their way. That is not God’s doing; we humans do this to ourselves. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way:

God’s judgment is not so much some kind of extra punishment God dumps on [people] as it is God’s announcement that they have abandoned the way of life.

Like some divine jiu-jitsu master, God does not set out to hurt them. God simply spins the rejection of life around so that they can feel the full force of it for themselves.[4]

When God is our judge, God tells us the truth about ourselves. God sees and names what is real and what is deadly within us. God opens our eyes to our own nakedness, hopelessness, and alienation so that we can enter into repentance, enter into grace.

This God of Justice and Grace is the one upon whom we are called to bend ourselves so that our lives will align with that which is true and good and right and just; so that we may be the body of Christ working God’s work in the world. Like the priest who offered radical grace to Jean Valjean, we are called to be God’s partners, offering new possibilities in life’s impossible circumstances; called to do God’s work in our broken communities, created to shine God’s light into this stubborn darkness, challenged to inject grace into the vicious cycles of whatever Jean Valjeans may show up on our doorsteps.

And we don’t stop. We don’t stop entrusting ourselves and our families and our communities to the Creator who is still creating and recreating goodness out of our every chaos. We have a choice: we can keep on curving in upon ourselves, and die. Or we can die to ourselves, bending ourselves toward God for the sake of the world—and truly live.


[1] Bolle, “Myth,”Britannica.

[2] Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection, 121.

[3] Taylor, Speaking of Sin, 41.

[4] Taylor, Speaking of Sin, 35.

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics, and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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