Here’s the question, ready? Are people basically good or
basically evil? It’s an important question, because our answer
determines our world view: not just our view of people, but how
we see God and God’s creation. I bet some of you are thinking
right now that this is a trick question -- you can’t answer
this yes or no, because every human being, with the exception of
Jesus Christ, is both good and evil: we are capable of doing good,
but we often fall into bad behavior: not just the bad things that
we do, but the good things which we fail to do. This is true, and
we don’t have to look any further than ourselves in order
to confirm this.
I don’t mean this to be a trick question; my question about
good and evil is meant to go further back than what we do or intend
to do on any given day. My question is about how we were created:
not only me or only you, but humanity in general. I know what my
answer is, but I want to give you a little background--how this
conversation came about in history in the Western Christianity.
It was because of a fight between the Christian Church in Rome,
and the Christian Church in Ireland -- or Celtic Christianity. In
the fifth century, Christianity was adopted by the Roman Emperor,
Constantine, and the church and state became joined at the hip.
As soon as babies were born to Christian families, they were baptized
and registered as members of the church and citizens of the state.
Many churches, the Roman Catholic Church being the largest, still
practice infant baptism.
But this practice of infant baptism raised a question for fifth
century theologians: if one of the biblical reasons for baptism
is for the forgiveness of sin, what sin did these infants commit?
This is a good question, but the answer got pretty complicated.
Essentially, the baby’s sin was being born -- or more, accurately,
being conceived in a sexual act. Since that’s how all of us
got started -- again, with the exception of Jesus Christ -- we are
all born sinners and in need of forgiveness. This is the Catholic
doctrine of original sin.
If that doesn’t sit comfortably with you, you’re not
alone. This idea of original sin never really caught on in the Celtic
Christianity of Ireland. This is partly because of the Celtic concept
of creation and the relationship between creatures and Creator.
Creation, as God proclaimed at the beginning of Genesis, is good.
And human beings are not separate from the rest the created order,
we are a part of it. Human beings have a special place in creation
because we are made in the image of God. This doesn’t necessarily
mean that we look like God, but some part of God is also a part
of each one of us. And whatever part that is, it is good.
In fact, Celtic Christians and other Christian contemplatives and
mystics like St. Francis of Assisi believed that God was revealed
in creation. That someone who had never been exposed to the holy
writings of the Bible could still sense awe and power and reverence
in the grandeur and intimacy of creation. Celtic Christians talked
about the big book and the little book: the big book was God’s
work written on the world around us; the little book was God’s
work and the salvation of Jesus Christ written in the Bible. There
is support for this understanding in the Bible itself: in Romans
chapter 1 where God’s truth is plain since the creation of
the world, and in the psalms which extol God’s creation. My
favorite of these is the one you’ve heard this morning, Psalm
19. I’d invite you to turn to Psalm 19 if you have a Bible
with you; I won’t re-read it here, but it is a wonderful illustration
of the big book and the little book: I especially love verse 3 and
4 which says there is no speech and no words, yet somehow the heavens
tell the glory of God throughout the world. Through verse 6 the
psalmist is talking about the big book of creation, and then suddenly
switches gears in verse 7 and says “The law of the Lord is
perfect.” Now we’re talking about the little book. For
the Hebrew writers of the psalms this would have been the Torah,
the law. Christians have a slightly bigger little book, which includes
the law and the prophets and the psalms, but also the gospel and
the letters of the New Testament. Creation gives us the big picture
of Creator God, and the Bible fills in the details of how we are
live and act in order to honor the image of God within us. The Bible
tells us the story of Jesus, the only person to perfectly represent
the image of God in human form.
Speaking of Jesus . . . I would be remiss if I didn’t present
the other side of this theological debate about whether people are
basically good or basically evil. Here’s the downside to all
this Life is Beautiful talk: if people are basically good, then
why do we need Jesus Christ as our Savior? And if people are basically
good, then why is the world such a mess? These are fair questions.
No world view can last for very long without acknowledging evil
and pain and suffering. These are realities we cannot avoid. And
that, sisters and brothers, is precisely why we need Jesus Christ
as our Savior. God’s truth is out there proclaimed to the
ends of the earth in the big book of creation; we have the law and
the gospels in the little book of the Bible, and there are people
committed to taking that book to the ends of the earth, too. The
problem is that even though that truth is revealed to us, or at
least available to us, we often ignore it. Sometimes we intentionally
act in ways which we know to be wrong. Sometimes we act in ways
which we know to be wrong and blame it on someone else. I could
go on and on -- I won’t. I trust it’s enough to say
that despite the image of God within us -- what I believe to be
the deepest core of who we are -- we are constantly going off the
path of God’s law, and we can’t get back on track by
ourselves. It is only through the grace and salvation of Christ
that we can walk in the way of God’s will for us.
I heard an interview this week with Sheryl Sandberg. She’s
the CEO of Facebook, and her first book was called Lean In. This
interview was about her second book, Option B, and her experience
three years ago. She was on vacation in Mexico with her husband
and two children, and her husband, Dave Goldberg, who was 47 years
old, climbed on the treadmill at their exclusive resort and \had
a fatal heart attack. That experience of losing a spouse and having
your world turned upside down is something that I know resonates
with some of you. If you haven’t heard your world upended
by suffering or grief, you surely know someone who has. How can
we possibly acknowledge, let alone celebrate God’s goodness
and Christ’s salvation in the presence of evil and suffering?
Option B is not a Christian book, but Sandberg offered some wisdom
that I’d like to share with you:
First of all, resilience -- the ability to become strong, healthy
and successful again after something bad has happened -- resilience
is not something you either have or you don’t. It turns out
that resilience can be cultivated. We can practice resilience; and
like physical recovery from an injury or surgery, we can strengthen
our emotional and spiritual resilience over time. And do you know
what builds spiritual resilience? The bicep curl of emotional recovery?
Gratitude. It may sound ridiculous to be grateful when your world
has fallen apart, but here was Sandberg’s example: a year
after her husband’s death a friend was asked Sandberg to think
of what she could be grateful for and Sandberg’s response
was “Are you kidding? My husband died suddenly from a heart
attack; what could I possibly be grateful for?” And her friend
said, “Well, he could have been driving in the car with the
kids when it happened.” Realizing that her children were still
alive and safe allowed Sandberg to focus on her loss differently,
and see a bigger picture.
Which leads to her second point: be grateful for the small stuff.
There may be big realities in our lives which we cannot change --
the death of a spouse, serious illness, a bad financial situation.
We cannot wait for those things to be fixed before we practice gratitude;
there are things in lives which can never be fixed. But we can still
notice and give thanks for the little things -- the beautiful blossoms
on the crabapple tree out there that I passed to and from work a
dozen times this week, the Easter greetings in my Creekside mailbox,
a good night’s sleep -- expressing gratitude for small things
adds up. When we share gratitude and express appreciation to other
people, it multiplies. When we share gratitude for God and God’s
creation, it’s called praise, and praising God is a powerful
thing. We don’t praise God because life is easy. We praise
God because life is difficult and God never leaves us and God never
stops loving us. We praise God because sometimes we make life even
more difficult than it ought to be, and when we really messed it
up, God loved this world so much that he sent his Son to save us.
Even when life is difficult the crabapple tree blooms and spring
comes and God gives us the gift of each new day.
God the Creator is the author of the Big Book, the book of creation
which reveals God’s glory and power. God is also the author
of the little book, the Bible which reveals God’s truth and
the truth about ourselves, the truth about our need for Jesus Christ
and his grace and salvation. All praise be to God the Creator, Christ
the Redeemer, and the Spirit who is at work among us. Halleluia!
And all God’s people said Amen.