by Bernard C. Phelan MHM
MHM - Mill Hill Missionaries
The early missionaries in the part of Uganda where I worked for many years had difficulty finding a suitable word for ďSinĒ. The concept was quite strange to the local people. Eventually they decided on the word ďaronusĒ (bad thing) which traditionally was used to describe a death in a home. The problem was that people never quite understood the difference between a death and a sin. Many would often ďconfessĒ the people who had died rather than personal sins.
We are also not so clear about what sin is. In the past we had a shopping list approach to sin where people went regularly to confession to have them wiped away, like cleaning a board in the classroom. It was a legalistic approach. Acts were wrong because they were forbidden Ė viz 10 commandments: Thou shalt not do this or that . . . The other side of this legalistic coin is that if the law says it is right, some people think it is. If the government brings in draconian laws around asylum seekers, then it must be right. If the law says abortion is allowed, then it is right.
Most of us have moved away from this legalistic position to what is called moral relativisim. The only thing important is the sincerity of my decision, of my conscience. If it tells me there is nothing wrong with a particular course of action, then its alright. There are very few things which are objectively wrong in this view, and its usually other people who do them! Not me. I donít feel I need to go to the Sacrament of penance any more.
This kind of morality leads us to settle for being nice in the face of the complexity of life. Its too much to get involved with all the different problems of our society.
We are not aggressively evil, we donít go out and commit robberies and kill people.
But we wonít make any waves. We go with the flow of things. We donít mean any harm to anyone. We live respectable and comfortable lives, and we give occasionally to charity. If we do something we know is wrong, then God is ever loving and merciful, and he will forgive us in his great mercy.
So what are we to make of the call in our readings today repent of your sins and turn to God. Do we instinctively think of it in terms of the man with the Bill board slogan ďRepent, the end is nighĒ and let it flow over us, quickly forgetting about it. It doesnít apply to me.
We need to listen to the good news of today that Jesus is the Prince of life, who God raised from the dead. We meet him at the breaking of the bread, when he sits down at table with us as he did with the disciples in that room in Jerusalem. He says to us also, why are these doubts rising in your hearts? It is I indeed. Believe and donít doubt.
We are baptised people, people of the resurrection, called to live resurrected life.
We are people of communion, celebrating regularly union with the one who gave himself for others on the Cross, and union with each other.
People called to love God as he did.
People called to love others as he did.
He is the one who gave us the great commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul and mind, and your neighbour as yourself.
When we reach out of ourselves to others, we grow and flourish, we become whole persons as Jesus did. And when we stretch ourselves to going beyond the limits of our normal boundaries, becoming concerned for people outside of our circle, those within our own country who are marginalized and oppressed, and those beyond whose sufferings we witness daily on our televisions, then we grow into the likeness of Jesus, and Godís love comes to perfection in us, as John tells us today.
What is sin then? When all is said and done, it is any action which turns us in on ourselves, which is destructive of our selves and of others. Sometimes it is a definite choice to engage in activities which are destructive of self and thus take away from our ability to reach out to others; actions which make us self centred and only concerned about gratifying ourselves. But the more self centred we become the more oblivious we are to others, and their problems, the more we ignore the plight of those who are suffering in our world, the more distant we become from God.
We become the centre of our little world. Nobody else is important.
The Good news is repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. We are not condemned to live in mediocrity, to sink further and further into the well of our sinfulness. Jesus is our advocate with the Father, the sacrifice that takes our sins away and those of the whole world. If we turn to God, he will raise us up with his Son. He will give us the grace to become truly people of the resurrection.
We will begin to realise more and more that it is what is wrong, what most people in our world recognise is wrong, that is forbidden, not the other way round. We will understand that Godís commandments are not arbitrary rules, but reflect the values which govern any healthy society.
We will see that our consciences need to be cultivated and illuminated by the Church and by these values which arise out of our human existence. It is only then that we can claim in a certain situation that sovereignty of our conscience that is our right if we are convinced of the truth of a particular course of action. Only then can we say I am following my conscience.
We live in a society where the sense of sin has largely been lost. We Christians are called to be witnesses of the Risen Jesus to our neighbours, showing them a different way, that it is possible to live our lives, open always to the needs of others, as Jesus did. This is the way to a full and peaceful life, and the way to eternal life.
Bernard C. Phelan May 4th, 2003