According to St. Augustine, humanity is not born tainted by the stain of original sin, but is born into a cloud of sin, so much so that even when we think what we are doing is right, we are actually participating in evil. Boil this down, and what St. Augustine is trying to tell us is that the deck is stacked against us from the minute we are born and no matter how hard we may try, we will eventually fall prey to the wiles of evil.
At Baptism, we recognize this reality when we vow to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. What I love about this vow is two fold. First, it recognizes that even at Baptism, God is not done with us, as perfection has not been reached. And second, no matter how badly we may screw up, God, and the Church, is always willing to offer us a do-over.
The challenge of this vow, however, is it requires us to accept that we are sinners. For me, this is a hard label to swallow. There is no doubt I have no problem accepting the positive labels of Baptized member, child of God, Christian, member of the elect, the saved, etc. etc. , but sinner, that label just feels too, well, humble, maybe even plebeian as that term above all others is really an equalizer in this life.
But sinners we are, whether through things “done or left undone,’ as the 79 prayer of confession states. Or through the words that have helped me connect with my own participation in evil from the confession now contained in prayer book compendium Enriching our Worship, in this prayer we ask God’s forgiveness for evil done on our behalf.
In recent years a game called six degrees of separation has been developed. The most common form of the game has to do with figuring out how many degrees of separation there are between the player and Kevin Bacon. The line of thought goes something to this effect. “ I know Joe, who works with Frank, who represents John, whose sister is Jacqueline, who is married to Kara Sedwick’s Brother, Frank, and Kara Sedwick is Kevin Bacon’s wife. And therefore, there are six degrees of separation between the player and Kevin Bacon.
When reciting the contemporary confession from Enriching our Worship, one realizes that ones relationship with evil may be more about degrees of separation than direct contact. Remember, Augustine tells us that we are born into a cloud of sin and even when we think we are doing what is right, we are actually engaged in evil.
For example, it is no secret that I bought an IPAD last August. It was and is an honest purchase, one I made for work related purposes among others. When I bought this instrument of technology, I knew that it had been produced in China. What I did not know is that the company responsible for its production is notorious for abusive labor practices.
I also realize the diamond ring I purchased for Maureen as a sign of our engagement over 25 years ago, although purchased through a reputable Jeweler in Boston, is most likely connected with the diamond mines in South Africa, a place where mining practices are both abusive of its workers and fraught with violence. Both of these purchases, I made both honestly and innocently, have connected me with evil taking place half a world away.
In the book of Genesis, after having killed Able, Cain asks God if he is his brother’s keeper. And while the answer may be no, we are not our brother’s keeper, in actuality, as those who vow to renounce evil, we may be our brothers’ and sisters’ protector by not supporting industries that use unjust labor practices.
Now expand the cloud of evil to be avoided to include, companies that engage in destructive environmental practices, and those who exploit women and human sexuality through their advertising and the cloud gets bigger and bigger until we realize as Christians our world is a conundrum, because as much as we try to resist the forces of evil, we can’t altogether. St. Paul stated it best when he wrote to the Romans, For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 1”For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”
Yes, even the great St. Paul of Tarsus was not immune to the conundrum that is the ying and yang of good and evil. Like you and me, St. Paul was humbled by his own propensity to sin, and like you and me, willingly wore the label of sinner.
The good news in all of this, this vow is not really about our inability to resist falling into sin, but our acknowledgement of God’s desire to forgive. This second vow reminds us that we are not made fully perfect through the waters of Baptism, that the journey towards righteousness is not completed through good works, but only through the grace of God. A grace that is freely given when we are able to humble ourselves enough before God to admit how helpless we are in regards to sin and how dependent we are on God’s willingness to forgive every time we succumb to evil.
Last week, I mentioned that the Church is not meant to be a museum for the sanctified but a hospital for the broken and the sinful. The second vow of Baptism serves as a constant reminder that the only difference between those who are saved and those who are not, is those who are saved are aware of the cloud of evil we reside in, how vulnerable we are to sin and how great our need for God’s forgiveness is in our lives.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return the Lord? To that we say, we will, with God’s help.