The problem is sin. The answer is Christ.
At the root of society’s issues is the problem as old as humanity itself: sin. Whether the issue is global warming, wealth inequality, or racism, all are caused by humans turned in on themselves and clinging at all costs to their comfort and conveniences. The cost almost always paid, not by themselves, but by the most vulnerable of society.
Enlightened public policy plays a vital role in the response to sin. Where public policy is perceived by citizens to be fair and just, applied equally across all segments of society for the benefit of all, it forms the vital glue holding our nation together. Sin is restrained and a foundation established for humans to prosper in relationship with one other.
Sadly, however, sin infects public policy. Instead of restraining sin, some policies and laws promote it. Legally, the few benefit at the expense of the many. As the infection spreads, people begin to question the fairness and justness of the law. The glue loses its stickiness. Cracks appear in the foundation.
While the promises of candidates and politicians may indeed offer policy proposals pointing society in more equitable directions, they do not answer the problem of human sin. Public policy responds to sin, but it does not remove sin. This is why history is full of the heroes of today becoming the scapegoats of tomorrow as they sit on cracked thrones of unfulfilled promises.
For Christians, the answer to sin remains the same as proclaimed by John the Baptist two thousand years ago. Pointing to Jesus, he declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
It is, and it is not, that simple.
Responding to the continued quagmire of the Vietnam War, Republican Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously advised that the United States declare victory and bring its troops home. As we know now from the vacuum left in Iraq after our withdrawal there, it may or may not have been that easy. But this is what preachers do when they announce a forgiveness that allows sinners to remain comfortable in their sin. Declaring forgiveness and going home, pretending that all is now well regardless of sin raging on, is “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about. In such preaching, sin itself is justified, is declared acceptable by God, rather than the sinner.
What complicates matters for the preacher, however, is that in his parable of the wheat and weeds, Jesus warned his disciples against zealously charging into the wheat fields of their lives to remove the weeds of sin, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” (Matthew 13:24-30). There are innocent casualties in a direct assault against sin.
What’s a preacher, what’s a Christian, to do?
The answer is to boldly, audaciously, and confidently announce death to sinners! To proclaim the Christian faith that teaches that in baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. The death, not the physical death of punishment, but the death to our old selves of sin turned in on ourselves. The resurrection, not only resurrection at the end of our physical lives, just as importantly, resurrection right now, in this moment, to new selves of faith turned outward in love and service of God and neighbor.
Called to take up our cross to follow Christ, we do so knowing our cross is not the bundle of pains and burdens of life felt by Christian and non-Christian alike. It is instead the cross to which we have already been joined in baptism. The cross that daily summons us to die in order to live.
The removal of sin in this way is real grace because though there is death, there is no punishment. Christ has taken the punishment upon himself! It removes sin’s power to sever relationships as sinner is proclaimed saint and reconciled with God! It is real grace because those who were once lost in sin and death are now found in the resurrection and life of Christ!
The United States needs preachers, and all Christians, to proclaim and embody this movement of faith away from self and into community. Alive in Christ in this way, with the power of the Holy Spirit unleashed, Christians become the salt of the earth, flavoring and preserving humanity with lives lived, not for self, but in love and service for the sake of community.
The problem is sin. The answer is Christ.
The image is the famous painting of the Reformation by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1547 in which Martin Luther is depicted preaching Christ in the parish church of Wittenberg, Germany.