A Palm Sunday Meditation on Personal Sin
Sin is utterly personal. This we understand. The covenantal commands of the Decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). For we confess a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin. The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may “need no repentance”. As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions. We get lost. It is our nature, east of Eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance. (You also may not be quite human). Robert Allan Hill, On Meeting Sin Again for the First Time, 2001.
A Passion Sunday Meditation on Spiritual Disappointment
Now that we have come to the Passion Narrative, we need to name and regret a biblical disappointment. If we are going to read the Bible at all, and hear the gospel together, then we need to be honest about a scriptural disappointment. As with all of our lives, the Bible itself, the very Word of God, does nonetheless harbor disappointments. Hear the good news: there is even freedom following religious disappointment.
Sometimes our great strengths occasion our most glaring weaknesses. If for example John is the Bible’s great strength, it would then be possible that here too we might find great weakness. And we do.
Oh, I give no ground with regard to the truth of Scripture. The Bible is freedom’s book, the pulpit is freedom’s voice, the church is freedom’s defense. It is also occasionally true that the Bible is a holy disappointment. Nowhere in Scripture is the height of Christian freedom more powerfully depicted than in John, and yet, at the same time, nowhere is the Bible more of a disappointment.
(This year we hear from Luke, a passion narrative of milder sort. Other years we hear from John.)
John’s gospel is anti-Semitic, at least to our ears after 1940. It was composed in the white heat of one small group leaving a synagogue in order freely to worship what the synagogue could only understand as a second God. It was the charge of ditheism, though denied and controverted, which moved John’s little church out into a free and frightening future. So the Gospel of John speaks roughly of its Semitic mother religion, of its own tradition. The living water is meant to surpass the dead water of Jacob, of Jacob’s well. Notice the way the writer refers with oral scare quotes to “the Jews,” like Robert E. Lee calling Yankees “those people.” Notice the dismissive explication, here and elsewhere, of Jewish rites. Notice that even though salvation is from the Jews, his own people “received him not.” Notice Jesus saying, “All who came before me are thieves and robbers.” We have an obligation to notice. And to regret, to express contrition and compunction. These words from this gospel have done immeasurable harm, from Augustine to Luther to the Third Reich to today, and that is a grave spiritual disappointment. As Christianity puts its best foot forward, it is really the other one that needs attention. We have two biographies ourselves. That of persecuted, and that of persecutor. Of all religious bodies, we have the most work to do with regard to anti-Semitism.
How are we to find freedom following such spiritual disappointment? By facing facts, by learning from our experience of success and failure, by moving ahead: The fact is that Christianity has been pervasively guilty of latent and patent anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John has been one of its sources. We have and can learn from this failure, by carefully monitoring our use of religious language. And we can move ahead. John is guiding us toward a global vision, an ecumenical spirituality, a universal Truth, a global village green, space for grace and time for freedom. And our Jewish brothers and sisters can teach us to continue, with Jacob, to wrestle with God. Robert Allan Hill, The Courageous Gospel, 2013