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A Shot For Sin
May 20, 2001
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John chapter 14 and follow along as I read verses 23-29. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.
24 He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me.
25 These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you.
26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.
29 And now I have told you before it came to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Imagine, for a second, a shot that can protect you from sin. This temptation vaccination would require only a quick trip to your doctor. Roll up your sleeves, receive a jab from a needle and suddenly you have immunity to pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth--because you have had an injection against iniquity!
The idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. The pharmaceutical industry is currently closing in on a new approach to treating drug addiction. Vaccines are being tested that program the body to produce immune-system proteins called "antibodies" that can chemically disarm specific drugs in the bloodstream. At least five drug companies are testing vaccines for cocaine, PCP, methamphetamine and nicotine. Researchers find that rats and monkeys with access to cocaine continue to party away until they get the vaccine, then they seem to lose enthusiasm for the drug. Human tests are going well so far, and these drugs appear to offer hope to people who are struggling to quit smoking or snorting.
Antibodies themselves are nothing new. They have been protecting us from disease since Methuselah first sneezed in his crib. But the antibodies produced by these new vaccines would do something new: They would attack recreational drugs in the bloodstream and keep them from reaching the brain.
In other words, vaccinated addicts find that their favorite drug has no effect on them. They can not get high, because an antibody has removed the pleasure from their poison. With this kind of temptation vaccination, cocaine addicts can snort all they want, because the coke will not affect them. Parents do not have to teach their children to "just say no," because a vaccine will protect them from danger.
Yet though this is a medical advance, it is not the answer to sin. Sin control requires more than an iniquity inoculation--especially since new illegal drugs promise to stay one step ahead of vaccines.
Also, we should not forget free will. A Yale University study tested a cocaine vaccine. Thomas Kosten, M.D., principal investigator on the phase 1 study, and his team administered the vaccine to thirty-four former cocaine abusers living in a residential treatment facility. The vaccine, TA-CD, is designed to generate drug-specific antibodies, which bind to cocaine and prevent it from traveling to the brain from the bloodstream. This neutralizes its psychoactive effect. However, Dr. Kosten said "The people in the study had a motivation to want to stop using cocaine." He emphasized that this desire to stop is the key factor of any successful treatment outcome. ["Anti-cocaine vaccine produces antibodies," Yale University, New Haven, Conn., www.biopsychiatry.com/cocaine/vaccine.htm]. What Dr. Kosten was saying was that for addicts to become unaddicted, they had to make a decision to do so. They had to exercise their free will. Free will is the deeply rooted religious belief that human choices are somewhat voluntary and not entirely determined by external causes. Our will cannot be controlled by a vaccine. Moral and ethical choices cannot be made by prescription. As Dr. Kosten indicated: A desire to STOP is a key factor of any successful treatment outcome.
This is one of the lessons of psychopathology. At the heart of mental illness or addiction is the impotent child crying, "I can't. You do it for me." That moment in therapy when the patient begins to "get well" is when she says, "I am responsible for my feelings, my actions and my style of life. In spite of parents, family, friends, or society, I alone can make the decision to outgrow my "disease" and to establish a way of life that is satisfying. That is real healing. No magic is involved. A person simply gets to the point where they can take charge of their own life.
The apostle Paul was well aware of how difficult it can be to get to that point. "I do not do the good I want," he admits in Romans 7:19, "but the evil I do not want is what I do" Even when he wants to do what is good, he finds that evil is close at hand, leading to a conflict within himself between the law of God and the law of sin. Even when he absolutely delights in the law of God, he feels this war being waged within himself, making him captive to the law of sin. The human predicament seems to be that we want to love God with all our hearts, but often we act as if we do not love God. That is why we spend so much time wishing and so much time repenting.
The songs of Johnny Cash have some insights that we need to hear. Johnny Cash has never served hard time. Aside from a few overnights in local jails--most during his sixties-era amphetamine addiction--he has never been behind bars, and the only prisons he has seen from the inside are the ones that he headlined as an entertainer.
That always shocks Cash's fans. In his autobiography, entitled Cash, he writes, Many people "refuse to accept the nonfelonious version of me"-- Which is understandable. Anyone can claim "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," as Johnny Cash does on "Folsom Prison Blues," but only the Man in Black owns a baritone steely and gothic enough to turn those words into a plausible confession. For all that, however, Johnny Cashs greatest real-life transgression was accidentally starting a forest fire on a California wildlife refuge.
The singer is obsessed by the notion that the heart of a man - and his anti-heroes are always men - can be divided against itself: capable of senseless sin one moment and salvation-seeking the next, monogamy one moment and philandering the next. The killers in Cash's songs are trigger-happy and erratic, and sometimes they think their victims had it coming because they were double-dealing or cruel or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the shooters buckle with guilt nearly as soon as the killing is done.
They pray a lot. They realize that they deserve to be locked up. "I know I had it coming/ I know I can't be free," Cash sings at the end of "Folsom Prison Blues," while listening to a passing train from a prison cell. In "Delia's Gone," a murderous lover recounts killing his girlfriend for the sin of being "low-down and trifling," but now he's haunted to insomnia by his crime. "Jailer, oh jailer," he moans, "Jailer, I can't sleep/ Because all around my bedside I hear the patter of Delia's feet ... ."
The focus Cash has on remorse separates his songs about crime from those of the gangsta rappers. Unlike DMX or Big Pun, bravado or Machismo does not interest Cash. He is fascinated by the aftermath of bravado, by moral agony and shame.
That is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Romans 7, the moral agony of knowing what we ought to do and not doing it.
Can there be a shot for guilt and sin. Can a shot lead to some kind of inner stability and serenity? The Apostle Paul says, Not likely.
As frustrating as this condition is, we should not forget that free will is part of God's plan for us. Or to put it in more contradictory words, free will is part of predestination. When we read the book of Genesis, we see that God did not put robots in the Garden of Eden. God did not program Adam and Eve to do only good. No, God created independent beings who had the ability to make free choices.
Of course, they chose poorly and suffered the consequences, and we still choose poorly. Going for the forbidden fruit is a habit we can not seem to break.
Help is clearly needed if we are going to use our free will for good. That is why God sent us Jesus--not only to save us from our sins, but to show us a way to avoid sin. In today's text, Jesus makes an important link between love and the free choice to do good: "Those who love me will keep my word," he insists (14:23).
In the gospel of John, chapters 14-17 contain teachings and assurances that Jesus shared with his intimate companions, the disciples. Scholars often label this unit "The Farewell Discourse" as it directly precedes John's account of the passion and crucifixion.
In John 14:22, a disciple asks Jesus how his followers, and not the entire world, will know him. Implied in this question is how will they see the revelation of God in Jesus. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus has encountered those who cannot see him, or who struggle to see him. Many of these, such as Nicodemus (John 3), or the Samaritan woman (John 4), believe they know who God is and how God is revealed. When they encounter Jesus, however, they do not immediately recognize him as God. Indeed, this theme of spiritual blindness is introduced in the prologue of the gospel. John 1:9-12 says,
"The true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.
What the world sees and what the believer sees are not the same. For this reason the world is a hostile place, and the "home" that God offers in Jesus is a dwelling distinct from the world.
However, for the here and now, Jesus assures the disciples in verse 26 that the Holy Spirit will be sent to teach them. The relations described between Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit suggest a unified purpose. The words of the Father are those of Jesus, and will in turn be taught by the Spirit. Indeed, the community that Jesus seeks to develop is one that derives its being from this community of the divine, this Trinity. The goal of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to build and sustain a community of faith.
But faith in Jesus is more than just saying we believe. Belief in Jesus is obeying Jesus. This is obvious. We can not simply say we love Jesus and then do as we please. Love and obedience are interconnected choices that we make every day. Jesus does not force us to love him any more than he forces us to pursue good over evil. Instead, Jesus respects us enough to give us the freedom to choose.
But why? Why not save us some heartache by making these choices for us? Because love and morality require an atmosphere of freedom. Love is always the free exercise of choice. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says, "Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other." True love and authentic ethical actions require free choice. Jesus wants us to love him and obey him not because we have received a temptation vaccination, but because we choose to obey him.
When we make this free choice, we receive a wonderful gift. The gift is the presence and power of a Lord who comes to us and makes his home with us (14:23). According to the gospel of John, God and Christ dwell in all who live in love and obedience. The Holy Spirit teaches them, and Christ gives them his peace (vv. 25-27). That is an attractive incentive for anyone considering a life of love and obedience.
However, such a choice does not come easily. Sometimes it takes time, and arrives only after missteps and mistakes and even significant suffering. But the suffering is not without purpose. The suffering may in fact be in God's plan and may result in the best outcome for us.
To quote M. Scott Peck again, he says, "The quickest way to change your attitude toward pain is to accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth." [Further Along the Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).]. Someone who is suffering might say that no one wants to learn through pain; That is true, but it is also true that we do learn from painful experiences.
Consider the case of a young Houston woman named Lia McCord. She was spending her days modeling lingerie and her nights doing the club scene, when one day a friend mentioned she was going to make $10,000 in cash for a one-time trip, smuggling diamonds. A few weeks later, the friend returned, full of stories of lavish travel arrangements as well as easy money.
The trap was set for Lia. Only one detail had changed: It was not diamonds the friend had smuggled; it was heroin. Lia made a bad choice. She decided to smuggle drugs. Her destination was Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. There she obtained a package of heroin and attempted to board an aircraft bound for Switzerland. She walked through a metal detector, but then was stopped and subjected to a body check. The heroin was discovered; Lia was arrested. Convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to die by hanging, she spent years in a Dhaka prison. During that time, her picture often appeared in local magazines as "the American who thinks she can escape the law." Of course, she did not escape. Her situation had no quick solution, but her punishment had purpose.
When she entered prison, Lia felt far from God, but the Muslim women around her were so sure of their beliefs that they began to challenge Lia to prove her own. "Sometimes I thought, am I right or wrong?" wondered Lia. "But I began to dig into a Bible I had received from the embassy, to find out what I really believed." The more she read and memorized Scripture, the closer God came.
As she grew in her faith, Lia also became more adept at sharing her faith. She did not beat her fellow prisoners over the head with the gospel, but she did try to work her faith into everyday conversations. She came to the conclusion, "This is where I am. I deserve to be here. But I need to make something good out of this."
Lia had an impact on the other inmates. They often made excuses to stop by Lia's cell, just to look at her, commenting she was "something bright to see." Lia knew where the brightness came from. It came from the Holy Spirit within her.
After four years, Lia was released. Looking back on her imprisonment, she says, "God put the brakes on my life because he cared enough to say, 'Lia, you are going to stop and think and listen to what I have planned for you.' My punishment only helped me see how brightly the light of Jesus shines in difficult situations." In this world, some lessons can be learned only by making bad choices and suffering the consequences. And sometimes these consequences contain unexpected and extraordinary opportunities for spiritual growth--opportunities to choose love and obedience, and to experience the life-changing peace of Jesus Christ.
There is no vaccination for temptation, and no quick shot for sin. There is only a God who promises to come to us and make his home with us, in even the most desperate situations. Amen.
Ready, Tinker. "High immunity," Utne Reader, November-December 2000, 20-21).
Steffen, Bonne L. "Free again!" Christian Reader, January/February 1997, 22).
-David Segal, "Reaping the Johnny Cash crop," The Washington Post, May 21, 2000, G4.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 07/18/01