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March 3, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Don't go cutting yourself off from God's love

Sin separates us from God and isolates us from others

Renew 2000, Season IV: Reconciling
Week I: Time to Reform and Believe
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

Have you ever been alone?

Maybe it was the Fourth of July when no one invited you to a cook-out. Or the Christmas Eve when you were the one delegated to stay in the office until five, while everyone else left early.

You felt lonely, right? Cut off from the fun? Left out of life?

Sin cuts us off from life, isolates us from others. Worst of all, sin separates us from God.

Russell Connors Jr. and Patrick McCormick explain that "sin is ultimately about a rift in our relationship with God ... sin is not just about doing evil; it's about saying no to God."

During this season of Renew 2000, we focus on reconciliation -- reuniting ourselves with God. Reconciliation is about repairing our rifts with God. It's what Jesus came to do. And it's the mission ("Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19-20)) which he left for us to continue after he had ascended to the Father.

But before we can be reunited with God, we have to understand what separates us from God.

In this week's Gospel, Jesus tells us to "Repent and believe in the Good News" (Mk 1:15). The Good News was that the Kingdom of God had broken into our lives in a new and healing way through Christ.

Some translations of this Gospel use "reform your lives" for the word "repent." That helps us understand the true meaning of repentance. Repentance is reshaping our lives -- through the grace of God -- in order to be able to live in the Kingdom.

In our modern vocabulary, the word repentance is often paired with the word sin. But what is sin?

Since I was a kid, I understood that sin was something bad that I had done, which I needed to confess. But, while I understood that sin was my willful disobedience of God, I didn't understand that sin isn't so much a list of my bad acts as what effect those bad acts have.

To look at sin in this way, we have to return to a biblical sense of sin. The Old Testment had several words for sin. Two of these were hattah and hamartia, both of which roughly mean "to miss the mark." In terms of the ancient covenant relationship with God, they meant messing up in that relationship.

"Within the context of Israel's covenant with Yahweh," explain Connors and McCormick, "these terms took on the religious and ethical meaning of failing to meet one's obligations to other persons, thereby breaching one's relationship with God."

So, from Old Testament times, we have understood that sin separates us from God and from others.

When we are separated from God, we aren't doing what God wants of us. We are not fulfilling the call to live in covenant with God. And we are not living as Christ called us to when he said to "believe in the Good News."

Louis McNeil of the Glenmary Research Center explains that Mark's Gospel message was not just information about Jesus' arrival, but "an announcement and unveiling of the fact that God has drawn close to us and that the power of God is available to be drawn upon."

This drawing close to us by God, fully revealed in Christ, showed God's faithfulness. Contrasting this, in both the Old and New Testaments, we can see that sin is human unfaithfulness to God. Theologian William May explains that, "the deeper understanding of sin as separation from God (seen in the New Testament) stems from the deeper understanding in the New Testament of the loving intimacy that God wills to share with humankind. The Father so loves us that he sent his only-begotten Son to be with us and for us, actively seeking to reconcile sinners with himself."

Reconciling sinners covers a lot. There are many types of sin, many degrees of sin, and many levels of our participation in sin. At times, we are more guilty -- more culpable -- of the same sin than at other times. It can all get mind-boggling. But the basics are simple. When we sin,

-- we are not acting as God wants;

-- we are not being faithful to God;

-- we are not being like God since we are created in God's own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26) and are children of God, recognizable as related to the Son (1Jn 3:1-2);

-- we are not responding to the vocation of being Christ to others ("The vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father's only Son" Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1877).

Based on this understanding, we know that we sin when we are not like God. To know when we are not like God, we must always remember what God is like.

As Jesuit Fr. John Wright says, "The New Testament revelation of God is more fittingly summed up in St. John's expression 'God is Love'" (1Jn 4:16).

God, as revealed in Jesus, through the Spirit, is perfect love, complete and encompassing all creation. Whatever God loves has life. God's love gives life. God's love sustains life. God's love brings for new life. And God's love heals anything that drains life.

Again looking to St. John, we find that when we abide in love, we abide in God and God in us (1Jn. 4:15-17).

Likewise, if we do something that damages life, denies life, that hurts or injures life, we are not abiding in and with God. This brings us into the realm of sin, because we are in danger of separating ourselves from God. (Yes, knowledge, intentions and freedom all play a part in determining whether or not we have actually sinned, but if -- through our acts -- we have failed to love, we are certainly near to sin.)

So, if we would repent -- reform our lives and reconcile ourselves to God -- we must learn to abide in God, to live in love. If not, we will willfully separate ourselves from the God who never wants to part from us.

No one likes to be lonely. So, I suspect, no one wants to sin -- because it's the ultimate loneliness. Luckily, we can repent. Next week, we'll look at how God's love shows us the path to reconciliation.

(Sources: Character, Choice and Community, The Three Faces of Christian Ethics; Catechism of the Catholic Church; and The New Dictionary of Theology)

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