Thursday, March 28, 2013

“Bearing Sins” Means Forgiveness

Whose shoulders are big enough to bear the sins of the world?

There are, of course, some perverse ways in which sins get borne. We humans are very prone to scapegoat others, to offload our fears and apprehensions on this person or that group, rather than search out the complex reasons why things go wrong.

But scapegoating is a sign of our sinfulness, not a sign of how Jesus’ Cross is the culmination of his redemptive life, Western Christianity’s heavy use of the scapegoat motif on Good Friday notwithstanding. A better clue to the meaning of “bearing the sins of the world” can be found in a Hebrew word often translated “forgiveness." The word naga’ has a number of meanings, one of which is “to bear" and it is sometimes applied to atonement rituals in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, when God forgives our sins, God is, among other things, “bearing the sin” rather than punishing us or avenging it.

We ought to understand this because we do it ourselves. If we retaliate for every slight, strike back for every offense, take vengeance for every injury, our world spirals into emotional violence, perhaps worse. But we often “bear with” others we care for, sometimes actually “bear the sin” done to us and forgive it. Of course, there's a time and place for everything, and the Master also bids us confront offenders directly when necessary. Finding the right balance between forbearance, self-protection, and calling others to accountability is one secret of emotional maturity.

So, Jesus “bearing the sins of the world” means, among other things, that he embodies, as God's living Message in the flesh, God's big shoulders: God's own merciful willingness to "bear" injury from us as we violate the fabric of goodness in ourselves, nature, and other people. We do this extravagantly, dangerously, often heedlessly. We are inextricably part of the sin of the world no matter how noble and holy our personal lives are; not to blame for all of it, but also not exempt from contributing to it.

Peter Abelard had this right: the Cross shows how deeply God will enter into life to reach us. The crucified Son is not the victim of a God furious at sin, but rather the very embodiment in human flesh of God’s own sin-bearing, forgiving love, relentlessly refusing to turn against us, even as we pierce his hands and side. That is because God sees us still, and always, with a heart that is ferocious in its desire to wake us up out of the fears and narcissism that are the drivers of our misdeeds; wake us up to accountability, and turn us toward the golden seeds of God-likeness planted deep in us. 

“Hate the sin but love the sinner” is not a popular phrase among the fellow-believers I know, but it’s not entirely amiss for how God sees us. Perhaps “grieve the sin and love the sinner” or even “bear with the sin because they are more than sinners.”

Whatever way it's said,  it’s good news for yet another Good Friday.

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