The speedometer on our family car suggests that our car could go 160 miles an hour if we wanted it to.
It could save so much time if we zipped along at that speed! The 8-hour trip to my folks in Ohio could be reduced to about three hours and 15 minutes. Pittsfield to Boston? About 52 minutes. The drive from our home to Big Y World Class Market would be reduced from 6 minutes to about 50 seconds. Oh, how much time I could save!
But, no. Some government officials decided that, for some reason, driving 160 miles an hour everywhere would be “unsafe.” My Honda-given right to drive at 160 miles an hour is quashed by what other people can’t do safely. So, we have these “Speed limits” everywhere. On most streets around town, I’m limited to a measly 25 miles an hour, and I have to drive even slower around schools. There are only a few places where I can go faster, and even then, these speeds pale to the 160 miles an hour speed our family car can reach. Because of “big government” overreach, I will never be able to leave my home and arrive at Big Y in 50 seconds.
It’s all ruined, of course, because of what other people did. We have speed limits because someone, at some point, drove 160 miles an hour irresponsibly. I always (usually)shovel my sidewalk pretty quickly, but because someone didn’t, I’m legally mandated to now. The list of things we can be fined for, need to pay fees for, pay taxes for, get licenses for, or that are regulated in this way, or that goes on and on. Although a few of these things are mainly about revenue, quite a few of them are also the result of what someone, along the way, didn’t do right.
About now, I’m hoping you hear my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I have no earthly idea why our Honda can drive at 160 miles an hour, and I can’t imagine a scenario where that could be done safely in day-to-day usage. Even when we push it a bit, most folks are pretty happy there are speed limits. Even when we complain, most folks understand that taxes and fees help pay for some essential services. Even when the paperwork seems onerous, we’re willing to fill out forms to get permission to do this or that. We don’t think about some of it, but most of it, we understand. It’s not perfect, but it’s OK. All these things may affect what we can do individually. Still, we recognize that there’s some sort of collective benefit. We’re willing to set aside the centrality of our individual rights for our community, sometimes.
This weekend, as we recognize the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the civil realm, some of what we remember is a part of our ongoing struggle. To regard all God’s children as equal in God’s sight and to constantly work to balance and rebalance once that means. It means faithfully sorting through what rights and responsibilities are from privileges and unjust impositions. The individualism King warned about when he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools,” has become more, not less, tuned to the individual since he said those words. Consumerism, social media, and political discourse have all helped us tune ourselves more in that direction. Over time, the progression toward individuality and individual rights has become more of the rallying cry so that almost everything becomes an individual rights issue.
What’s wild to think about, however, is that there was a time in human history when individual rights or individual experiences weren’t even part of the consideration. It was the ancient Greeks that started to imply that individuals might have an experience or rights separate from the whole community or the whole of humanity. Until then, it required someone to become rich, powerful, or set aside from the community for a unique role to have what could be considered an individual experience. Even then, if an individual benefited, it was understood that everyone in their community benefited. If an individual failed, everyone in the community failed. Those who became sick or ill would do so because they rebelled against community rules or because their community or family had done something wrong.
Biblically, we see this play out in lots of different ways. Entire communities or tribes could be punished because of the actions of a ruler. In the Book of Ezekiel, there is the idea that if the parents eat sour grapes, the children grit their teeth. In the Gospels and the Epistles, an entire household was converted if the head of the household converted. Even post-biblically, it was when Emperor Constantine converted that the Roman Empire began to become the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
But, in biblical times, they weren’t there yet. Individuals were important but only in their relationship with their nation, community, or family. It was not the community’s responsibility to centralize individuals or individual experiences but to centralize the community and enforce the individual’s responsibilities to it.
This is really important when looking at the scripture from John for today. In the first line, John the Baptist sees Jesus on the street and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
There it is, the “s” word. Right from the get-go, I recognize that the word or the idea of sin is triggering for many of us. Unfortunately, too many of us have had the experience of being on the receiving end of this word being used as a weapon of the self-righteous against us individually. It is too often used as a word to shame and degrade people. Sometimes, it has been used as an excuse to harm and even kill people. I get that.
Sin hasn’t always had this same sort of connotation, though. The word “sin” is actually an English word that those who created the King James Version of the Bible used when translating Greek and Hebrew to English. It’s an archery term that means “missing the mark” or missing the target entirely. Before that, other Greek and Hebrew terms were used that meant the same thing. In more of the Greek or Roman understanding, the concept we use as sin meant that someone wasn’t living as their true or created self and that they were out of sync with how the world was supposed to be. When we catch up to the term in John, this was a term used for a community challenge of being out of not being what God wanted them to be or out of sync with what God needed them to be. If an individual acted this way, it was always in the context of a family or community. It was because their family or community was off-kilter.
Within Middle Eastern culture, there was a way of ritually recognizing this and trying to fix it. They would take an animal – usually a goat, sheep, or even a lamb – ritually place all their sins and shortcomings on this animal and then send the animal out into the wilderness where isolated, they would likely die. Hear those words from John the Baptist one more time: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
According to the Book of John, this Lamb of God, this Messiah, this Teacher called Jesus, was coming not to save you from some sort of personal sin but was coming to take away the sins of the world; to lead the world into a better way of living and loving, and to teach those who were called to be disciples how to make this world better. This was not about saving or condemning any individual but saving a broken world that wasn’t living into its calling and was out of sync with what God wanted for the world. Neither sin nor redemption was about “me” but “we.”
Sin, in this context, is less concerned about the condemnation of any person or persons but the redemption of a community or even the world. Suffering, in this case, isn’t as much a punishment for behavior that misses the mark but an outcome. Jesus is lifted up as the one who can alleviate this suffering through the spiritual act of taking it on and redirecting it on behalf of the world while, at the same time, teaching the world a new way that helps put us in the right relationship with each other and God. Jesus helps move us from regarding the idea of sin as a reason to turn on each other. The call is to live a life with less suffering; to turn toward each other.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
First and South Churches are still two churches worshiping together as one congregation now. We’ve been in the process of turning towards each other for years now. As we do, those things that are the gifts of each congregation have become evident, and the challenges or differences of each congregation have become evident, too. The closer we become, the clearer those gifts and challenges will become, but if we do this right, those gifts and challenges will become more and more held in common. It may have been in sync and necessary for South to branch off from First a few generations ago, but now, it may be equally important that God has us turning toward each other. Our coming together doesn’t solve any of our individual congregations’ challenges. As we become a new congregation and eventually a new church, we’ll still be reacting and responding to many of the same challenges.
However, this is also a moment to refocus our collective work and calling as a new or renewed congregation. Part of our work will be listening to each other and our wider community. Still, an even more important of our work will be listening to what God wants and needs of us, to be led by Jesus closer to the Kin-dom of God, and to center the teachings of Jesus to our collective life together.
Sorting that out will take all of us. May the God of grace, hope, and wholeness bless us in our work to come. Amen.
The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!