Yesterday, I was reading the Scriptures and a phrase caught my eye, “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin” (Cor 5:21). The “sinless one”, whom St Paul refers to here, is obviously Christ, but what can it mean that he was “made into sin”? If we look at this phrase through the eyes of the things we commonly call ‘sin’, such as dishonesty, lust, laziness, it makes very little sense, for how can Christ be made into dishonesty, lust, etc?
Recently, I was talking to someone about the ‘crucifixion’ of Christ and I mentioned that ‘crucifixion’ was not a Jewish punishment – they executed people by stoning. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment. The person I was talking to was struck by this – that Jesus was not even killed by his own people, but handed over by them to the pagans to be executed – and by so doing they effectively expelled him from his nation, from his people! We see this thought also in the phrase that he was crucified “outside the city walls” (cf. Jn 19:17), outside the place where people lived. He was, as Isaiah says: “a thing despised and rejected by men” (Is 53:3). The Lord was isolated, he was alone and in one of the most moving parts of the Passion story, we hear how this terrible ‘alone-ness’ welled up inside him and broke out in that awful cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27:46). Having been thrown out by his own nation, Christ felt that even God had deserted him.
It must be this awful sense of rejection, this ‘alone-ness’ that St Paul is referring to when he says that Christ was made into ‘sin’. This should give us pause to look again at those actions we usually call ‘sin’. We need to look past these actions to that which lies at their roots – namely our isolation from others. Those actions, which we normally call ‘sins’, are not sin itself, but the fruits of this ‘being alone’.
Last week, I watched a programme on the rape of Nanking, in the 1930s, when thousands of Chinese were slaughtered by the Japanese army. A Japanese man, who had taken part in that massacre, told how he was taught to despise the Chinese and look down on them as being less than human. It was this cultivated sense of separate-ness, alone-ness, he said, which bore fruit in that terrible killing. You can’t have sin without a sinner – and the sinner is the one who lives in alone-ness, separate from God and others.
Then why do we hold on to our alone-ness? The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, if there is a Creator then I am not free. That is our fear – we want to be free and being one with God and others is seen as a threat to that freedom. It is only when we are drawn deeply into love that we realise that a loving bond with someone does not take away our freedom, but, in fact, makes us free. As St Augustine says, “Love God and do what you want!” But it is very frightening to come out of our loneliness. We do not want to trust the bringer of the Good News that we are loved and wanted; we want to trust only our own ideas and our own strength. To accept the Gospel we need trust, we need faith in God’s great love for us. And we also need to get rid of, what my theology teacher, Bernard Häring, used to call that “sinful concept of sin”, that most of us carry around.
Fr Terry Burke