Sermon Text: Mark 2:16-17
A few years ago Stephen Prothero, a bestselling author and professor of religion at Boston University, wrote a fascinating book titled God is Not One. In this text he explores the eight world religions he thinks are currently the most important. For each religion he presents the problem that religion is trying to solve, the solution to that problem, and techniques that can be used to move toward the solution.
Professor Prothero proposes that Christianity addresses the problem of sin with the solution of salvation by the means of faith alone or a combination of faith and good works.
A few weeks ago I talked about the solution (salvation). Today, I want to address the problem (sin).
We have a sin problem. Of all of the world’s many religions, only Christianity is primarily concerned with sin.
For many people, the only Christianity they have ever known is a strict religion. It requires adherents to live up to God’s high standards. It asks followers to avoid sin. It even offers a list of 10 Commandments that tell people exactly what not to do.
“Thou shalt not” is the language many of us learned growing up. I don’t think I need to list all ten for you, but hearing a few should help drive home the power of the “thou shalt not” language.
- Thou shalt not have other gods before God
- Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s stuff
- Thou shalt not murder
- Thou shalt not steal
If you need me to talk in more contemporary language, I will. The 10 Commandments are they things you must not do. Put simply:
- do not
- avoid at all costs
- stay away from – ideally far away from!
In recent years many experts have talked about Christianity having an image problem. The core of this problem is a negative identity. In the popular culture Christians are known for what we are against rather than what we are for.
Maybe this problem is built on the solid foundation of the 10 Commandments. Our behavioral ideals are presented as negatives so in copying them we pay forward a type of negativity.
A few winters ago, I was excited that the independent Christian scholar and public theologian Diana Butler Bass accepted my invitation to give a series of lectures in Naples. My excitement faded considerably when she proposed spending two of her lectures talking about the 10 Commandments.
In the end, I was thankful I did not try to talk her out of this plan. Her talk was the exact opposite of the expected “thou shalt nots” and incredibly practical. Diana Butler Bass reframed the 10 Commandments in exactly the way I think Christianity needs to be reframed by shifting from the negative to the positive.
During the lectures she restated each of the Commandment as a positive – that is, she told us what God wants us to do and the kind of person God invites us to become.
For example, “thou shalt not steal” becomes “you should build up, honor, recognize, and give credit to others for their gifts and achievements.”
In my personal experience, good Christian people (and this includes good Christian leaders) often spend far too much time presenting the faith as a list of rules and things one should not do if one wishes to be a good Christian. This approach is tired at best and abusive at worst.
Sin matters. People who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, however, don’t need a checklist of legalistic things to not do in order to be “in.” People who seek to follow the way of Jesus need to learn that the Way of Jesus is an ongoing transformation and an invitation to become one’s best self. More than this, folks need examples and illustrations of what such a life looks like.
- Rewrite the 10 Commandments into 10 positive statements reflecting on what each calls you to do and the sort of person this means you are intended to become.
- Do you think Christianity has a sin problem or a love problem (or both or neither)? [Keep in mind that the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez claims,“sin is denial of love.” Also, Jesus summed up the 10 Commandments in four words:love God, love others.]