What is your problem? Its an abrasive question. Only had someone ask it of me a few times as I usually go out of my way not to offend or step on toes. But in truth, if the question could be asked in a loving way, its probably the most important question one can ask. What is our problem? What is our most fundamental need? This really is THE crucial question because how you define our dilemma will dictate how you understand who Jesus is and what he did. Another way to come at this is to define “sin.” To define sin is to define our real problem. Yet, not all people define sin the same way. Some would say our problem is a lack of enlightenment or education. Some define sin as a certain economic system. Is sin a numbness or blindness to our neighbor’s suffering? Some say sin is oppressive societal forces while others a particular political party. Is our ultimate foe a wrong philosophy or the way in-groups exclude outsiders? Is the real problem humanity faces corrupt officials, greedy corporations, or governments? If these forces are our ultimate problem, liberation from them becomes the focus of God’s work. Yet, when I read scripture all these things and others are not the real problem. Rather, they are some of the many symptoms of the real problem.
The real problem Biblically, is unrighteousness-opposing what God expects from us. We not only behave unrighteously but are captive to being selfishly turned inward viewing everything and everyone as to how they benefit one’s self. Our problem, sin, is a condition. In short, we do not and cannot live up to God’s standard. We are incapable of not sinning and can’t fix the problem ourselves. This unrighteousness separates us from God and each other. This unrighteousness not only brought death but makes death our ultimate foe. If this is our problem, God must do something about our unrighteousness. The question is how will God make us righteous? Will a teacher do it? Will a better philosophy? A new political vision? A new elected leader? The Biblical story that leads to Jesus would say, no. The Egyptians, Babylonians, or Romans were not the core problem. The cross and then the resurrection would be needed. An exchange. God’s Son, Jesus, taking our sin and giving us his righteousness. Nothing short of this was and is necessary. You see if we don’t define the problem as severe as it is, the cross makes no sense or becomes just another heroic example of standing up to an oppressive authority. Such an example, however heroic, does not save us. At the core of the faith is the event of Jesus told with its significance as the gift of the forgiveness of sin which makes all who receive it righteous and saves from the problem of death. (Luke 1:77, Acts 2:38, 26:18, Ephesians 1:7) This is the central message of the church and we must not let it become dislodged from our center. If we do, we loose the Gospel. Indeed, we preach a different Gospel. (Galatians 1:6, 2:21)
Does the faith speak to the symptoms? Yes, of course it does, but the way we get at those symptoms is to bring the amazing exchange that happens in the event of Christ to all people – that encounter moves us to then work on the symptoms. The church is always tempted to stray from its primary message. Working on the core problem with the core Gospel is what separates us from other service organizations. Its also why we gather every Sunday to receive the Word and Sacrament. May we stay the course.