Ignorance of God is our sin

  • January 11, 2008

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Jan. 20 (Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Psalm 40; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34)

What is it like to be singled out by God for an important task? As any prophet or person of God can tell you, it is not always fun and games.

The Suffering Servant — like many others in the Old Testament, as well as Paul in the New Testament — has been marked out and designated for his role from before his birth. The Suffering Servant must have felt that he had been given Mission Impossible, for in verse 4 of the passage from Isaiah — omitted from the lectionary — he expresses fatigue, discouragement and a sense of failure. His mission is to bring Judah and Israel back to God but he feels like he is not making much headway. Not only that, he is also supposed to be a light to the nations.

But God never asks anything that is beyond our means. He will grant whatever powers and graces are needed, usually in the form of an ample portion of the divine spirit.

Christians are also supposed to be a light to the nations, but all too often that light grows rather dim and even sputters out. Perhaps we don’t take the call seriously… perhaps we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task… perhaps we rely too much on our own efforts and lose heart…. perhaps many things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in 2008 we centred our prayer on asking God for the gift of the Spirit and the guidance to do His will?

A seemingly innocuous greeting in Paul’s letter contains some interesting theology of sanctification. He addresses the letter to “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus… called to be saints.” According to Paul, sanctification is something accomplished by the spirit of Christ and does its work on all those who live “in Christ.” Sanctity is not something we achieve on our own — no self-help books or Spirituality for Dummies (there is such a book!) allowed. And it is certainly not a personal possession, but a gift of God for the common good. This avoids the danger of viewing the saints as spiritual athletes. We might think that they are so far above us spiritually that sanctity is beyond our grasp. In fact, they are ordinary people who are extraordinarily open to God. They have their own weaknesses, failures and struggles. Our spiritual transformation is God’s work — our contribution is co-operation and openness.

What is the “sin of the world” and why is it spoken of in the singular? Aren’t there many sins? For the author of the fourth Gospel, there is one ultimate or root sin that is the source of all the others. The sin of the world is a profound ignorance of God compounded by an inability or unwillingness to recognize that ignorance. And such damage can be done by those who presume to speak and act on God’s behalf without really knowing Him.

Jesus takes away that sin by enabling us to have access to God — something that no one can ever take from us, but also something that no one can ever do on our behalf. If we really knew God directly, we would know ourselves too — and our behaviour and attitude would be very different. Instead people put their trust in human belief systems or traditions, substituting that for a real experience of God that is always transformative.

Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is attacked by very pious and religious people who are convinced that they know all about God. Jesus will reveal a God whom no one really knows — without violence, darkness or limits and conditions put upon His love. It is a revelation that humanity has let slip through its fingers in past centuries. The Baptist recognized Jesus because of the descent of the spirit of God upon him at the Baptism. Earthly chronology, appearances or qualifications mean absolutely nothing — it is clear that Jesus is the one designated from all eternity. But the Baptist also indicates that Jesus is the one to baptize in the Spirit — that same Spirit that descended on him.

Jesus is not only the one who saves, but the one who empowers. We share in that Spirit, as we share in the mission of Jesus — that is, if we take our vocation as Christians and the invitation to discipleship seriously.