Moving beyond a wooden Augustine...

My series on "Sin and Grace in the 21st Century" has been resonating with some and bewildering others. I can see that some folk find an invitation to rejoice in Paul's announcement that we are ALL sinners unsettling. (Thank God: I know it makes me uncomfortable.) I think that Bonhoeffer said better than any one else that most of the time the contemporary church teaches that we are not really sinners: Sin is for those people - those who are obviously wounded and marginalized - and we are insiders. Good souls.

In his training manual for pastors preparing to serve the underground church in Nazi Germany, he wrote:

Why is it often easier for us to acknowledge our sins before God than before another believer? God is holy and without sin, a just judge of evil and an enemy of disobedience. But another Christian is sinful, as we are, knowing from personal experience the night of secret sin. So should we not find it easier to go to one another than to the holy God? (Mostly) because we have been living in self-forgiveness and not true forgiveness...

As long as I am by myself when I confess (and forgive) everything remains in the dark; but when I come face to face with another Christian, the sin has to be brought out into the light... and sin hates the light. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid, sin poisons the whole being of a person... and makes us more lonely... and the more lonely we are the more destructive the power of sin is over us.

(Until) we let the cross of Christ shatter our pride (and bring us into the light) we will remain afraid of going to the place where Jesus is truly found. We refuse to carry the cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession... for in confession we affirm the cross (which is folly to most of us!) But in the profound spiritual and physical pain of humiliation before another believer, which means before God, we experience the cross of Jesus as our liberation and healing.

St. Paul reminds us that the Cross is folly for some and scandal for others - and without it we try to live as a God unto ourselves and sin's shame and power keeps us trapped.

So, next Sunday I'm going to try to update the wisdom of Augustine but in a way that is not obsessed or inhibited by his location "of sin's transmission from one generation to the next in the act of sexual intercourse. In spite of his enormously important contributions in other areas of theology, when it came to sex Augustine fumbled (in personal life as well as in theology.) Nevertheless, it was the universality of sin and the need for diving grace that he rightly wanted to articulate - the notion that sin is inevitable but not necessary. None of us escapes it, yet we cannot blame it on blind faith either." (James Nelson, Thirst, p. 69)

Which leads me to a fun idea that I hope will work: to highlight how Augustine's great fumble has tragically wounded us I want to use two GREAT cultural examples of Augustine's legacy: Peggy's Lee's incomparable "Fever" and Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac." (I understand there are Ani De Franco and Guns'n'Roses songs that play with the garden imagery, too.)

Both of these songs fuse the quest for sexiness with a sense of violating God's will in playful but provocative ways. And just as the almost superstitious Roman Catholic obsession with infant baptism has captured the culture - "we have to baptize our child as protection from hell should she die" - so, too our cultural confusion when it comes to the garden of Eden. Just listen to the way the Boss crafts this rambling sexual/spiritual riff on the ancient story: brilliant, funny and all too honest almost in spite of himself. Man, he even brings it all together by working in a CAR!

We shall see how it all shakes out in worship next week... maybe there are better tunes out there that celebrate this confused obsession... but I don't know them. Any thoughts?


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