The purpose of our conversation about sin this morning is not to make you feel guilty – that may happen, but it’s not my main goal – my main goal is to help you to identify the chains that bind you so that you can be more open to God’s mercy and love and be more deeply converted to Christ, who wants to give you his joy and peace. Jesus is our divine physician, but in order for him to do surgery (confession) he must first help us to identify the areas that are sick. So it’s important to get this straight right from the beginning: we Catholics talk about sin because we love one another and want the best for one another, no other reason.
The first thing to note is that sin is not something that just evil and bad people do. In fact, we all have a tendency to sin. St. Paul said that in one of his letters: “Why do I do what I don’t want to do?” And I think we have all asked that question more than once, right? “What was I thinking? How did I let that happen? You idiot… idiot… idiot!” Every one of us, every human being seems to share this trait: they don’t always want what is good and true and beautiful, or at least they don’t always want it as much as they should. So we have to ask – well how is it that good people, people who want to follow God and do his will are still capable of making some very bad choices? What is wrong with us?
Original sin. C.S. Lewis said that the existence of original sin is one of the doctrines of the Church that is easiest to prove. God has revealed in the teaching on original sin why it is that we contain this division within ourselves: our nature is corrupted: God made us in his image and likeness with a plan that we would use our freedom as he does: to live in love. But Adam and Eve were deceived by the evil one, and instead of the tree of freedom and life that God had given them to eat from, they chose to eat from the tree of self-love.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop with them. We still live in a fallen world, a world that rebels against God – and we all have to admit that there is a part of each of us that rebels against God too.
What happens when we rebel? We are blinded, we are divided, and we are accused. That’s what sin does: it blinds us, divides us, and accuses us. This is the work of the evil one, who St. Peter says is like a roaring lion who prowls about this world looking for someone to devour the way that he went after Adam and Eve: he is the deceiver, he is the divider, and he is the accuser. And we can see him at work right from the beginning of creation. Think about Genesis for a moment. The first sign of evil is the serpent, who deceives Eve, making her think that disobeying God would make her happy. After they eat from the wrong tree, what is the first thing that happens? Instead of walking beside God in the garden, they hide from him, they are divided from God. Soon after, Adam and Eve turn on one another “She made me do it.” Divided against each other. And they can’t stand being naked – they are even divided in themselves, they feel ashamed before God. It is a three-fold division, from God, from one another, and even in their very selves. And lastly, they are ashamed to be with God, they feel accused even though it is not God who accuses them but the evil one. And so they separate from him, they no longer feel that God is their Father who loves them, but instead they hide from him like you would hide from someone you fear. The accuser has gotten a hold of them.
So, if we’re going to allow the Lord Jesus to free us from sin, to free us from the grip of the evil one, we have to first look at where he might have gotten a hold on us. Where we have allowed deception, division, and accusation to creep in and make us resistant to God’s work in our lives.
Christ, as we know, is the Way and the Truth and the Life. He comes to reveal God’s will to us and to dispel the darkness of that comes from sin. But we have to ask him to dispel that darkness and we have to be open to the purifying fire of his grace that will show us our sins and help us to see ourselves clearly.
The evil one, the deceiver, doesn’t want us to see our sins or to recognize how seriously they bind us and keep us from being able to respond to God. He wants us to be content, or at least to not struggle too much or cry out for help. And so he works to dull our consciences, to dull our sense of right and wrong, to give us all kinds of reasons why we should not worry too much about following God’s will or finding out what God wants of us.
I think the most common way the devil gets us is by tricking us into comparing ourselves with other people, letting the people around us form our consciences, instead of allowing our conscience to be formed by Christ. We look at others, and we see some who seem to be very good and some who seem to be not so good. Mother Teresa over here, and maybe Hitler over there – so I guess I’m somewhere in the middle here – basically a good person. So… well God isn’t going to send all these people in the middle to hell, right? So if we’re just better than most people we should be okay – just be a good person. We hear that a lot – he or she is a good person. Well wait a minute. Jesus didn’t say “Go and be a good person.” He said, “Go and sin no more.” He said “Take up your cross and follow me.” He made it very clear that the person we are not supposed to be looking around at others to figure out what we should be doing, not even the Pope or Mother Teresa (although they would certainly help us out), but that we should first look to him, follow his example, that we should love one another as he has loved us.
So we have to resist the deceiver who would like us to think that what is right and wrong is based on what other people think or on what is acceptable in our society. What is right and wrong is based on God’s will, and Jesus is the one who lived in complete obedience to God’s will and shows us how to follow the will of the Father. So that is why it is so important that we pray and work to get to know Jesus Christ so that he can form our consciences to be like his, so that we can see the truth and not be deceived.
Another deception of the evil one is this: he tries to make us think that sin makes life more interesting, more of an adventure. That it kind of spices things up. Kind of like flirting – that we think that it’s kind of fun to flirt with sin. And we might have the sense: “Hey, what harm is there in it? As long as we’re not going home together for the night, right?” “Besides, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “If I just have a little fun then I won’t be tempted to really be unfaithful.” Hmmm… That sounds kind of nice, if you were not married, and if you were flirting with some great and honorable guy or girl… but let’s think about this: Christ has died for us, given his life for us, showing us a love that is greater than any earthly husband or wife can ever give, so being faithful to him… well, that seems important, right? Why would we even go there? And furthermore, flirting with sin is like flirting with a dirty old man – and dirty old men are all the same. Sin is boring. It is virtue that makes life interesting. Again, watch out for the deceiver!
Another trap that I want to mention as well about being deceived. How easy it is sometimes to subconsciously let our consciences be formed by what we have done or want to do, instead of letting our consciences determine what we do and what we want. Maybe we’ve been more sexually active with a girlfriend or boyfriend than we should. We try to say that certain things are okay if you love someone or if you are committed to them. Slowly we start to change our mind about what we think is okay or not okay – based not on Jesus’ example, but on what we have done. We don’t want to feel guilty, to acknowledge that we have sinned – it is tempting to just change our definition of sin so that we don’t have to worry about it.
So, the first thing we have to fight are the deceptions of the evil one, we have to seek the truth about what is right and wrong – not forming our consciences the way we want or the way that works best in our world, but allowing our consciences to be formed by Christ who teaches us the way to the Father.
But even if we know what is right and wrong, the battle isn’t over, right? Far from it! And this is where we have to look at the tactics of the evil one and where he tries to cut us off from God, from one another, and from our very selves.
The source of strength for the Christian is our relationship with Christ, and it is this relationship that we have to guard with everything in us. The evil one tries to keep us from God continually. In our day in particular it is with distractions. He does not want us thinking about God too much in the day, meditating on Christ’s life and his example to us. It is in this area of loving God that we often commit the most serious sins, not only because they offend God, but also because when we don’t work to love God we become incapable of loving others. If we no longer are worshipping God, chances are that we are worshipping ourselves. Yet how easy it is to start to grow slack in our efforts to love God, to pass on prayer times or to not take the time of prayer seriously. To go through Sunday Mass without really working to offer ourselves to God, and not to take our observation of the Lord’s day seriously.
We can become content with a superficial knowledge of Christ, never talking with him, never listening to him in the scriptures, never deepening our understanding of his teaching by reading the documents of the Church or the lives of the Saints. And then we wonder why our hearts begin to grow cold, why Mass doesn’t do anything for us, why we don’t feel close to God. The divider has gotten in the way and succeeded in keeping us from our God. Staying close to God, intimate with him, loving him with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, which is the greatest commandment – is probably also the hardest commandment to follow, and requires the most effort of any commandment we have to follow. It’s probably in this area that we should have the most things to confess: our lack of love for God, our lack of respect and reverence for him, how little we think of him each day and seek his will in all things. How quickly we give ourselves a pass and move on to think about stupid trivial things, our own selfish daydreams and fantasies. But it is being close to God that will give us happiness and peace, that is what our hearts truly long for, just to rest in him.
When our hearts don’t rest in God, we also tend to not love others as we should, right? And that is the other area that the divider seeks to exploit. He works to separate us from one another. How easy it is to get so focused on what others are doing for us, or not doing, instead of focusing on how we can serve them. Yet isn’t that what Jesus tells us again and again: whoever wishes to be first among you must be the servant of all. Whatever you do to the least of these, you have done for me. How quickly we forget… An easy way to tell how we’re doing on this one is to see if we just spend time around people who are easy to be around. What about our younger siblings or older relatives? What about the elderly neighbor who is alone all day? Or do we just sit around with the same friends who make us feel good? Jesus challenges us to seek out the lost and those who are abandoned. He says that if we do good to those who do good to us there is no merit in that – criminals do the same. That we should do good to those who persecute us, who are out to get us. How much would our world change if we listened to Christ and followed his example? If we unplugged from all of our gadgets and tried to help those around us, to really understand them and love them? Do we just call friends to say hello, do we work to be loyal and trustworthy friends? Enjoy healthy time together, hobbies and common interests and team sports and activities? Do we listen to our parents and to honor them, trying to understand them and love them and serve them. If we didn’t speak about others unless we were saying the good things that others need to hear, as St. Paul teaches us? And just to put up with annoying things.. to see the annoying traits of others as an opportunity to give our hearts a work out, to strengthen our capacity to love by loving those who are difficult to love. Trying to overlook faults and flaws, to think the best of others and trying to anticipate their needs. How do we think of other people? Jesus tells us that we fall into sin not only when we do physical harm, but even in thinking maliciously or lustfully of others. We are supposed to treat others as we would treat Jesus himself.
And finally, sin causes division in our own selves. St. Paul teaches us that we have to treat our bodies and our minds as temples, as sanctuaries. After all, Christ has chosen to make his home with us, right – in fact our body is not really our own – in baptism we have died to ourselves, now we belong to Christ. So we have to be attentive not to allow a continual stream of junk and clutter into our minds and bodies and daily routines. Are we spending all kinds of time with mindless entertainment?
Our minds were given to us as a gift to be developed for the service of God and others, not just to veg out. You can’t love someone while watching tv or you tube. Technology itself is not good or evil, but it is easy to be selfish and wasteful of our time. It’s easy to become mentally and physically lazy, to lose our curiosity and interest in the good things that God has placed before us, to start to just walk through life as if in a daze, caught up in our own little world, walking right by people who are suffering or in need. If we’re not working to know and love and enjoy being with others, then what are we doing? We cannot allow our minds to be so distracted that we don’t have time to think and pray each day – and that means that we need some quiet time. And also that we need to get a good amount of sleep and try to eat in a way that will keep us healthy and alert.
So – in the fight against sin, we must fight the evil one who is constantly trying to divide us from God, from others, and from ourselves. It is a battle, and often we fail. And when we do, we have to be careful that we do not fall victim to another tactic of the evil one: his accusation.
When we recognize our sins, we see what is right and wrong and see how far we are from following it, the evil one is quick to try to jump in and accuse us before God. “You are a hypocrite, you’re not even sorry.” “You don’t belong here.” “This is too hard, you don’t have the strength.” “You are too far gone.” Anything to try to keep you from running back to the arms of your heavenly Father. That is why Jesus told us so many parables about the lost sheep or the lost coin or the prodigal son, or so many others – he knew that we have a tendency to listen to the accuser, to doubt that God can really forgive us, that we can really change. Instead, Jesus wants us to have the experience that Zacchaeus had: remember he climbed the tree to see Christ as he was passing by? And he listened to him and allowed his conscience to be formed by Christ’s teaching, he accepted what Jesus said was right and wrong. And Jesus saw his repentance even from a distance off and then he invited himself over for dinner. And Zacchaeus was so happy that he just started talking about all the ways that he could give things away, how he could serve others. His life took on meaning again. He was free. His sins did not hang over him like a dark cloud or make him feel distant from God – he was just grateful and joyful and happy to be with Christ.
Jesus wants all of us to have this same experience of repentance and conversion – not just once, but again and again throughout our lives. He desires that we ascend the tree of life, the cross, as Zacchaeus did, listening to him and being strengthened by his grace that comes to us in word and sacrament to lift us from our sins. When we accept the cross, the tree of life, when we humble ourselves and follow the will of the Father, Christ comes to us and is able to gradually free us from sin, from selfishness and give us the joy and peace that come from serving him and our brothers and sisters.
Let us pray today for the courage to listen to Christ and to let him form our consciences, to teach us what is right and wrong, what is true and false. May his grace help us to honestly look at our lives in the light of the gospel, to squarely face our sins, trusting that God’s grace and love and mercy conquers all things. Today allow Christ to encourage you: not to be afraid but to confidently approach him and ask for his forgiveness. Christ has come for us sinners, to save us, to rescue us, and to give us true freedom that comes from being his sons and daughters who are fully alive and whole and at peace with our heavenly Father, with one another, and in ourselves.