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Atonement: At-One-Ment

The Rev. Sara Warfield

At Tuesday’s Bible Study, Paul LaCroix asked a seemingly simple question that turned out to be not so simple at all. A question whose answer is, for many of us, burdened with baggage. Or, for others of us, relatively straightforward. But listening to each person in the Bible Study share what they thought, it was clear that no one had the same answer.

The question was: “What is sin?”

One person shared that sin is like aiming an arrow at a target and missing the mark. Another person said that sin is disobeying God. Another shared that sin is a feeling that they experience, a feeling that tells them that they’ve caused hurt in the world that they need to atone for. Paul himself also talked about sin in terms of atonement, or a faithful response to sin.

Atonement, by definition, means “amends or reparation made for an injury or wrong.” But I think the more powerful definition, the definition that tells us most about what sin is, is the one within the word itself. Atonement. At-one-ment. To bring back into oneness, to bring back into relationship.

As I sat with and studied and prayed with our scriptures this week, Paul’s question stuck with me. What is sin? Can there be sin without relationship, without recognizing our critical need for and our utter dependence on God and God’s creation to live and move and have our being?

I don’t think so. Whenever I think of any variety of sin, from telling a little lie to stealing to needlessly destroying the world around us, it all comes down to the breaking of relationship, the breaking of at-one-ment.

Relationship is inherent to life. Whether or not you ever see the mechanic who works on your brakes, there is a critical relationship between the two of you: you are dependent on your mechanic and their skills for your safety. Whether or not you think about the trees that have been felled and cut to build your home or the plants or animals now growing and breathing that will one day serve as your food, you are dependent on them for your survival. Relationship is inherent to life.

That’s what the Body of Christ means to me: To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. We are all connected, and what the Spirit gave each person to contribute to this web of connection is absolutely essential to the well-being of everyone and everything else.

So it seems to me that sin only comes in when there’s disregard for relationship.

Is it a sin when a driver swerves to avoid hitting a child who has run into the street but then hits another car in the process of swerving, killing that other driver? I don’t think so. Because the driver who swerved recognized the worth of that child’s life. Maybe they wouldn’t put it this way, but something in that driver recognized their connection to that child, and they reacted to preserve it.

But what about a person who’s checking their texts while driving and kills another driver? Would that be sin? I would say yes, because they are being careless with the safety of others, neglecting their relationship to the others on the road.

Or that tree that’s now beams in the bones of your house. Though it was cut down, you have a new relationship with it. It provides shelter. Whereas if you were to just cut that tree down and leave it to decay in the woods, well, I would call that sin.

Our scriptures for today speak not only of relationship, but they go ever further: they build one after the other on the idea of covenant.

Now there is a difference between relationship and covenant. While relationship is inherent whether we acknowledge it or not, covenant is the active recognition and acknowledgment of relationship, of at-one-ment, and vowing to preserve and honor that relationship.

In Genesis, God says to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” God recognizes and vows to preserve and honor the relationship between God and God’s creation. (Now one could argue that God needs to atone for the breaking of that relationship by destroying the world, but that’s another sermon.)

The Psalmist say, “To you Lord I lift up my soul, my God I have put my trust in you:

let me not be disappointed, nor let my enemies triumph over me.”

The Psalm speaks of covenant with God, and the expectations the author has for God acting in at-one-ment with them.

First Peter talks about covenant in terms of sacrament: baptism. Through baptism, we formally make a covenant with God, to join Christ’s body—that is, to ritually acknowledge our relationship with God and with one another, and vow to preserve and honor that relationship.

And the gospel speaks of God’s covenant with Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God acknowledges God’s relationship with Jesus, and God calls God’s people to preserve and honor their relationship with God by preserving and honoring their relationship with Jesus.

Our faith is all about covenant. The ways we recognize and preserve and honor our at-one-ment, with God, with God’s creation, and with one another.

So sin is whatever we do that denies our at-one-ment, whatever breaks relationship.

The collect we heard on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, says:

Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.

I don’t like that prayer. At first it was because I was resistant to the idea of my being wretched. The prayer seems to imply that it’s innate to who I am, and I don’t like that, I don’t agree with it. But now I think I’m resistant to the prayer because it’s true. Not that I, or you, are innately wretched—after all, we were created by God. But that we humans do have a propensity to forget our at-one-ment. And it makes us cause harm—to each other, to the world around us. By what we have done and by what we have left undone.

So yes, Lent is a season to worthily lament our sins and acknowledge our capacity for wretchedness. It’s a season to atone. That is, to live into our at-one-ness. That is why it’s a time when we are invited into a practice.

To have a spiritual practice is to be intentional, to make yourself aware, to notice. When I played soccer, practice sometimes meant trapping a ball—which means to collect a pass that’s coming at you on the ground or in the air—over and over again. A hundred times in one session. Letting it hit my foot or chest—noticing how I needed to position my body depending on where the ball was coming from—each time, over and over and over again until I could make the ball land exactly where I wanted it in order to make the next move. After many years, thousands and thousands of repetitions, I didn’t have to think about making the ball land where I wanted it, it was just there. I’d practiced so much that it was built into my muscles and bones.

The task Lent invites us into is to get intentional about our atonement, our at-one-ment, to build it into our muscles and bones and hearts.

To live into covenant, deeply committing ourselves to our relationship with God and God’s creation, with each other. And then making a practice of either removing that which keeps us from that covenant, or building up habits that help us to become more aware of our relationships, our at-one-ment.

Lent not about intentionally suffering. It’s not about depriving yourself for the sake of Jesus. It’s not about sinking into your wretchedness. It’s about noticing your own life, and the people around you, and the world that makes your existence possible. Which is about noticing God.

So if giving up social media for Lent helps you to be more at one with God and the people and the world around you, awesome. Or if praying the daily office or writing a collect a week helps you to remember your relationship with God’s creation, amazing.

But please remember—if you find yourself logging on to Facebook or reaching for that chocolate or glass of wine, or if you’ve missed a day of praying or writing, it’s not about, “NO! BAD! FAIL. You get an F for Lent today.”

It’s not about perfection, it’s about noticing. Noticing what made you reach for the thing you gave up, or what made you avoid the thing you’d committed to do. What were the circumstances? Were you looking for comfort? Were you afraid you wouldn’t write a collect that was good enough?

Because berating yourself is to berate your relationship, your at-one-ment, with God whose creation is you. And that’s where all of this starts. In your practice with yourself. We can’t authentically offer to others or to God what we can’t give to ourselves.

So this Lent make a covenant first with yourself. To notice sin, that is to notice where you are breaking or ignoring relationship in your life, including with yourself. And then to take up a practice of atonement, a practice being intentional about drawing nearer to God in one another and the world.

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