Excerpted from The Episcopal Call to Love
By Rob Gieselmann
There is such a thing as Original Sin, only it isn’t what you think. Original Sin is the pall of darkness covering our world.
We live in a room shrink-wrapped by time and space, enshrouded and governed by darkness (see Jn. 1:5). We breathe evil as oxygen in this dark place. It isn’t a choice. We are born into it. Division, hate, bitterness, war, sectarianism, racism, sexism, fear, doubt, even pessimism. Humanity cannot escape the evil. There is no health in us.
Indeed, there is beauty and wonder and love here, joy and family and closeness. But this Eden-earth is canopied as a rainforest. We see the beauty of Eden darkly.
God unbounded by time and space, God as ubiquitous, God living simultaneously in all places and at all times: that God as infinite light entered into the room of this world through the doorway of a virgin. God as the absolute of good and love and light voluntarily subjected herself (or himself, if you prefer) to, in Scripture’s words, the shroud of darkness, the prince of this world, the darkness personified.
God by incarnation submitted to the devil, breathed deeply the devil’s oxygen, was tempted in the wilderness to become one with the devil, and was, at the end of it all, murdered by the devil. Death strangled life; evil trumped love and entombed God.
The Christian message is stark, compelling, and horrifying. Absolute, perfect, and infinite good and love and light submitted by passive non-resistance to absolute, perfect, and finite evil and hate and darkness. To death. Good Friday became the devil’s holy day.
But Good Friday is not the endgame. Easter is. The expression of nuclear power as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII is exactly God’s plan, only darkness and not people is the target. It isn’t just that Jesus rises from the dead on Easter morning, death itself replaces Jesus in the tomb. As Paul writes, death is the ultimate enemy to suffer defeat (1 Cor. 15:26).
The power of the Christian promise is not that God is compassionate, nor that God is our companion when life gets tough—no matter how accurate both truisms might be. The power of Christianity is this: the darkness has been rendered a mere illusionist, acting by slight of hand. Fear is the only power darkness has left. Life and light and eternity bested darkness long ago; we are victors already. Life is ours now. Life through death. Easter through Good Friday.
And therein lies the horror: we live because we first die. I have been crucified with Christ, Paul writes, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith… (para. Gal. 2:20). Jesus, too, understands that we gain life only through death: take up your cross and follow me (see, e.g., Lk. 9:23, 24). In union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:5).
The ancient rite of Baptism incorporates this theology of symbiosis:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.. . . of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit (BCP 306).
Baptism is not some arcane rite by which otherwise innocent babies cursed with actual sin are cleansed and, as my seminary professor liked to quip, slapped into the Kingdom, saved from hell in the nick-o-time. Baptism isn’t a fire insurance policy, nor is baptism primarily about forgiveness.
Baptism is about darkness and light, death and life. It is about Original Sin, and its defeat as a power in our lives. But it is also about submitting first to death. We identify fully with and accede to the power of death at the cross exactly because we trust in God as Son submitting completely on the cross: Into your hands I commend my spirit. We give up the ghost, the sky turns dark.
Which may be why the priest marks the baptismal candidate on the forehead with the sign of the cross, Christ’s own forever. The cross is the mark of your death. You are no longer your own, you are Christ’s own forever—a dead man walking.
Following Jesus always leads to the cross, for God and good and others in the defeat of evil. He who will save his life will lose it; he who will lose his life for my sake will find it (Lk. 9:24). Every stitch of Christian ethic originates at the foot of self-sacrifice. Not self-preservation.
But the cross at baptism becomes the mark of life. My life, the one that is hidden with God in Christ. (Col. 3:3) I am alive because I have died!
Note the severe poignancy of Ash Wednesday. The priest marks the forehead with the same cross and oil as at baptism, marking the penitent simultaneously with death and life: You are dust, and to dust you shall return, and the unspoken reminder, you are Christ’s own forever. Again, death is life’s womb.
Original Sin. Original Sin isn’t some stain on the soul inherited from parents. Original Sin isn’t about what one has done or left undone. Original Sin is about the state of affairs—the condition of the world, the air we breathe. The air is polluted, and the condition of the world is dark. That Original Sin is sin with a capital “S,” and is about us—all of us, and not any one of us. Original Sin is collective darkness, the hardness of the heart of a humanity that long ago rejected its God. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in Eden literally or metaphorically, the result is the same. Humanity preferred, and most often still prefers, evil over good, the devil over God. War over peace. Death over life.
God as Son breathed evil as oxygen when born into this world, and so do we. From the minute we are born, we become polluted with the oxygen of evil that we breathe. We become estranged from love, estranged from life, estranged from good, estranged from God, and estranged from others. Our estrangement is also Original Sin, the state of affairs requiring the saving act of Christ. We need to be saved from the evil of isolation.
Baptism saves us (1 Pet. 3:21). Born again into Christ, into community, we are fitted and joined with others, into a living organism of love and acceptance. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.
Love. Paul doesn’t write about the power of self-sacrificial love for the poetry of the words, but for a power-filled reason. The power of life is found in a love that does not insist on its own way; …that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Love submits to the Other, as Jesus at the Cross.
This love is the ultimate, and perhaps only, Scriptural imperative: [L]ove the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…. [L]ove your neighbor as yourself (Jer. Bible, Mt. 22:37). All of the law and the prophets hang, depend upon, and are interpreted by a love that becomes at least equal to, if not greater than, love of self.
The exotic beauty of love is rather simple. Love as light dispels darkness. Love is a positive force that overcomes. Love casts out fear. Love keeps Original Sin at bay.
The issue facing us, then, is this: what happens when we stop loving, when we stop being a community of love? What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? (Matt. 5:13). It is fit only to be trampled underfoot.
Rather than self-sacrifice forming our ethic, rather than love binding us, we in both the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion have formed ethic by argument, by besting one another, by being right rather than by loving.
It doesn’t matter whether the position one holds on the issue of Gene Robinson’s ordination and on homosexuality is technically and morally correct. It really does not matter. The reason it doesn’t matter is because we are asked by God to trust in Jesus as the Christ to be and act as the head of the Body, the head of the Church. We trust Jesus to take care of things, to bring things around to a right theology, and we trust Jesus because we are deeply aware of our own fallibility, our own humanity, that we’ve been wrong before, we’ll be wrong again, and in all likelihood, each of us is wrong now—at least in part. In fact, I guarantee it.
Even if, perchance, there is one of us who is not wrong technically on the issue, he or she is still wrong. As my parents used to tell me, you can be right as rain and still wrong. Remember, Jesus pointed to the sinner beating his chest for mercy as the one who received mercy, not the righteous Pharisee. It was the prodigal who received the Father’s love, not the good son. The good son couldn’t—he was self-consumed.
Which is why we yield. Which is why we trust. Which is why we submit as Jesus to evil, because yielding yields life. Death is life’s womb—we die to our own choices and opinions, in favor of others’.\28 Remember, he who saves his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake, and for the kingdom, will find it—dead man walking.
If we don’t sacrifice self, we can’t call ourselves the Body of Christ. We have become mere table salt that has lost its flavor.
Jesus as Christ in love with a world enshrouded by evil came to destroy the shroud, to open the door to eternity and life and love. The Gospels aren’t wrong just because they are dualistic. The battle is still one of evil against good, of Satan against God, of death against life. The promise is that we are already victors. The curse is that we still see as in a glass dimly. The hope is that we don’t have to.
The Rev. Rob Gieselmann, a lawyer, has served at St. Luke’s in Cleveland, Tennessee and St. Paul’s near Chestertown, Maryland. He is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito, Calif., and author of The Episcopal Call to Love.