Sin is the closet

The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng of the Episcopal Divinity School says that we need to turn from a legalistic notion of sin to a Christogical one. He believes that sin is more than just an excess of pride but is also an excess of shame.

I believe that it is time to shift away from a legal model of sin (whether Biblical law or natural law) and towards a christological model of sin. Under this model, sin is defined not by Biblical law or natural law, but rather by our opposition, as Christians, to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. That is, sin is a mindset; it is a mode of existence that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the good news of the Word made flesh. In other words, sin is a matter of deliberately turning one's back on what God has done for us in salvation history.

For example, let's begin with the doctrine of revelation. According to Christian theology, God reveals Godself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, it follows that sin is the closet, or the resistance to revealing ourselves fully to God and to others. Indeed, as feminist theologians have argued for decades, sin is not just a matter of pride and raising ourselves up too high, but it is also a matter of excess shame and hiding our true selves from others.

If sin is defined as the closet, then sinners are those people who use the institution of the church to deflect attention away from -- and cover up -- their own hidden sexual secrets and crimes, as we have seen repeatedly in the ugly sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Sinners are also the closeted fundamentalist ministers and preachers who virulently condemn LGBT people on the one hand and yet engage in hidden same-sex activities on the other.

By contrast, grace is defined as what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, which is coming out. For Christians, God reveals Godself most fully in the incarnation. Whenever we come out as LGBT people, we also become the living embodiment of God's revelation of the Word made flesh. We are able to love others fully because we realize that we are first loved by God. And that, for me, is what the good news is all about.

Here is his essay in the Huffington Post.

Comments (3)

Patrick has joined Huffpo as one of its regular bloggers, right?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-patrick-s-cheng-phd

Dr. Chen writes: "I believe that it is time to shift away from a legal model of sin (whether Biblical law or natural law) and towards a christological model
of sin."

It has been "time to do that" ever since Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Much of the apostle Paul's point is that we are no longer "under law" but "under grace". There is much to affirm in what Dr. Cheng writes and it is a helpful correction to many "under law" pseudo-Christianities. I join Dr. Chen in recognizing the false claim to pious righteousness and holiness all the while harboring secret sins. This is the type of hypocrisy that destroys the church. The Roman
Church's child molestation troubles are largely due to a dishonesty and denial about the capacity of the church to be engaged in institutional sin.

Such hypocrisy largely comes from a concern more from what the world might think about you rather than a gracious God who desires truth within our innermost parts that he might restore and redeem.

The point of Peter's foot-washing is much the same point. "Peter unless I wash your feet, you have no part of me." So YES, sin is in this respect a rejection of God's abundant grace and a rebellion against the
Gospel by suggesting that we can somehow take care of things ourselves. One of the critical things in accepting God's grace is a coming-out of the closet so to speak and being honest before God about who we truly are. Unless we do that we will never receive God's grace and we can be forever locked up in shame, fear and pride.

The one thing I am not reading in this excerpt from Dr. Chen (and I confess that I did not read the entire article) is that part of that coming-out is a truthful honesty of our sinful nature and actions before a holy, holy, holy God. In this respect coming out is not merely confessing transgression of some written code (though it includes that) but a recognition of both our finiteness, brokenness, and yes rebellion
against God's will for our lives and the relationship that he has for us with him. The message of the Gospel that Jesus has dealt with all of our sin, disease, brokenness, fallenness in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The gospel enables me to be fully accepted, forgiven and reconciled with God "just as I am" as the revival Hymn goes.

The prodigal son is out-of the closet, no longer putting on airs, he has come clean to the Father and found a Father of grace. The elder brother who tries to define his life under the law is the truly "lost" one
though he does not know it. He is neither honest about his own failings before his father, nor is he willing to extend grace to his prodigal brother who has returned and is humbly seeking grace. In this way, the elder brother justifies himself in legalistic terms and thus excludes himself from the party of the Father's grace.

The part that I wonder about in Dr. Chen's writing is whether he truly is talking about "coming-out" all the way--like the prodigal son. I do not get the impression that what is being asked for by much of the LBGT community is justification by grace but rather justification under the law. In other words what I am hearing is not a plea for inclusion under
the Gospel of forgiveness and grace, but an appeal for inclusion on the basis that we have done nothing wrong under the law.

Is the "coming out" he is talking about merely a honesty lacking humility. Like the rebellious teenager who says to the Parent who is concerned about their drug abuse and the troublesome friends he is hanging around. "I am just being me! And you want to take away my freedoms. Why don't you just accept me for who I am?" The problem is that there is a version of honesty that promises freedom but really is a slavery to sin.

I am convinced that God will accept anyone on this planet "just as they are" but as he finds us and accepts us he also gives us the Holy Spirit to transform us in every way to be the people he truly wants us to be and become. We have the freedom to be brutally honest about our condition, and in that freedom God moves us from within to become a new creation in him.

I am not entirely convinced by this "me and God" model of sin, and that the only variables in the sin equation, if you will, are the "sinner", God, and perhaps a person who was wronged. From what I can tell, sin in the ancient world, which is where we must start from, was a far more complicated matter.

Sure, there are offenses against God and neighbor. But forgiveness of sin to me doesn't look like something that happens just between God and sinner, or just between offender and victim. When Jesus forgave sins, he restored a person's standing and dignity before the community, and I think we miss that essential point when we look at the whole Jesus story. Further, it wasn't just that he *claimed* to forgive sins on behalf of YHWH and community, but that his...Person? was so powerful that the forgiveness given was forgiveness in its own right, and was physically, spiritually and socially restorative for the sinner in question. Because the community KNEW this to be true, even those who weren't his disciples, he simply became too scary, strange, and not of this world to keep alive, in the eyes of the authorities.

So when I hear people quote the classic story about Jesus breathing on the Apostles with the words "whoever's sins you forgive are forgiven, and whoever's sins you retain are retained" as a "proof text" for the power of the Church to decide the fate of an individual soul, I am convinced that is absolutely too narrow a reading. Think of it this way, rather...Jesus may be saying to his church, "You have a lot of power to restore people. If you refuse to restore them here on earth, heaven will know it too, and when you come before God, God will want to know why you refused to do this thing you were charged to do as the Gospel. Why did you refuse to give someone's life back to them, their health, their dignity, their spiritual well-being, when you could have? Yes, that IS how much power you have."

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space