“Leave me Lord, for I am a sinner!” Peter says to Jesus in the gospel. Somehow he seems to understand Jesus as “good.” He feels that here before him is a truly righteous person, and in this Peter considers himself unworthy.
Perhaps you have had some experience of feeling your own sinfulness before. If you have, you may be part of an ever-shrinking group of people. I read an essay by the Washington Post editorialist David Brooks suggesting that almost systematically the concept of sin has been gradually erased from the common culture over the past 60 years or so. And the longer I have sat with Brooks’ words, the more that I think that he was really on to something. For example, I asked a group of about 20 teens on a mission trip if they ever thought of their lives in terms of sin. Did they see themselves as sinners? None of them did.
I see several reasons for this. One is that through the years people have been abused as “sinners” – they have been shamed, and made to feel guilt, and so they run from the idea. Another is that in some circles sin has become tantamount to an analysis of systems. Sin is the way that when we by our clothes we are contributing to the oppressive labor practices or how by driving we take part in global climate change. And while there is a lot to this, many people seem to feel that if there is really nothing you can do about it then there’s no point in even thinking about it, and so have written off the whole idea of sin.
Finally, I see that notions of sin are dying out because for a long time sin was thought of as just a long list of rules to obey. If you followed the rules you were all right, but if you broke the rules then you were a sinner! Yet, this sort of black and white thinking does not sit very comfortably in the post-modern world that we live. Many people see that the world is much more nuanced than that. Saying something is or isn’t a “sin” requires context and understanding for the persons involved.
All this said, I don’t see any of this as reason that we ought to totally give up on the notion of sin. I for one, see a real loss for a culture that does not have as part of its language and self-understanding some sense of personal accountability. After all, the point of this work of self examination is that we might see those places in our lives where we are failing to live the lives that God calls us to live, to discover how we are failing to be the people that God is calling us to be, and then to turn around, to repent.
To this point, as Peter falls on his knees, so aware of his failings, his sinfulness, Jesus doesn’t allow him to wallow there even for a moment. Peter’s insecurities are not Jesus’ interest. No, it is in fact the call that Jesus holds out, the moment that Peter sees his flaws. Jesus offers him a way out. Be who you are supposed to be. Love how you are supposed to love. Don’t be afraid that you are stuck, that you can’t live fully. Listen to me. This is who you can be. This is who you were born to be. From now on you can be fishing for people. From now on you can be sharing my love. Come.
Donald Hanna is the Reverend at Alamosa Presbyterian Church.