Sermon delivered on Trinity 2A, Sunday, June 21, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 21.8-21; Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17; Romans 6.1-11; Matthew 10.24-39.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we continue our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, focusing on our epistle lesson today. You recall that last week we looked at St. Paul’s astonishing teaching about God’s great love for us made known in Christ. There he told us that while we were still God’s enemies, hostile toward God and hopelessly alienated from him because of our slavery to the power of Sin, God moved decisively on our behalf to end our hostility toward him by becoming human (or in the words of St. Paul, by sending his Son) to die for us, thereby freeing us from our slavery to Sin’s power and its ultimate and inevitable outcome—death. We are now reconciled to God and called, in part, to be ministers of reconciliation, reflecting God’s great justice, love, mercy, and grace to the world that desperately needs to hear it even while it is vehemently opposed to God and his gospel. Today we look at what St. Paul has to say about the process by which sin is defeated in the life of believers. Before we do that, however, we must look at the passage leading up to our epistle lesson today which the lectionary (bless its pointy little head) has left out like it did last week because it provides the immediate context for St. Paul’s teaching in chapter 6. Hear now the rest of Romans 5:
When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.
Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.
God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5.12-21).
In this passage, quickly, St. Paul speaks of two Adams. The first Adam, our first human ancestor, rebelled against God and that resulted in humans getting thrown out of paradise and losing their intimate and life-giving relationship with God so that instead of being God’s children and faithful image-bearers who ran God’s world on God’s behalf, we now were hostile and alienated from God. As St. Paul reminded us sin leads to death and eternal separation from God, something God found intolerable as he demonstrated when he sent his Son, the second Adam, to die for us to rescue us from that fate. The law magnified our slavery to the power of Sin (or sin’s rule) more and more but in Christ, God’s grace, or undeserved mercy, reigned even more because only God is greater than the power of Sin and so only God can free us from our slavery to its power. That raised the logical question. Should Christians sin more and more so that grace can abound more and more? The 18th century German poet, Heinrich Heine famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) put it another way when on his deathbed he was asked by a priest if he thought God would forgive his sins. Heine replied, “Of course God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Right.
Now in our epistle lesson, St. Paul anticipates this rejoinder to his teaching about sin and grace and gives us his answer (this clearly wasn’t St. Paul’s first rodeo). He asks rhetorically if we should “keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?” Of course not, he roars in reply! We’ve died to sin. How can we keep on living in it?? Now if you are like me, you read this passage and are tempted to scratch your head in puzzlement. You want to say to him, “St. Paul, are you crazy? I still sin. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. You even address this phenomenon in chapter 7 of Romans. How can you say I’ve died to sin?” To which St. Paul would reply, “It’s not about you stupid, it’s about the power of God at work in you” (well, he probably wouldn’t have called you stupid, but this gave me an opportunity to do so, which always makes me feel better about myself so I’m good with it).
St. Paul knew very well that being united with Christ does not make one a sinless person. Like Father John Wesley, he would have said sin remains but it no longer reigns in our lives. But that is not what St. Paul is talking about. He is echoing what he wrote to the Colossians when he said that “[The Father] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom [from the power of Sin] and forgave our sins” (Colossians 1.13-14). This is the power of God at work in us to rescue us from sin and death and bring us into the kingdom of his promised new creation that one day will come in full at Christ’s return. God did this for us out of his great love for us. We did nothing to deserve this gift nor can we earn it. In our own right we are utterly broken, unworthy and incapable of living as God’s true image-bearers. This is what the power of Sin has done to us. But God loves us too much to let us go the way of death and extinction and so God has acted decisively in Christ to break Sin’s power over us on the cross and transfer us into his new world via Christ’s resurrection. This is what grace looks like. We can’t earn it nor do we deserve a lick of it, but it is ours for the taking because of the power and love of God. What God wants, God gets and nothing, not even the power of Sin or the dark powers, can overcome God’s power made known and available to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen? It’s a done deal, even if it may not feel like that to us. And let’s be real. We are all about feelings these days, corrupted and unreliable as those feelings might be. But Christ’s death and resurrection were not feelings. They were and are the objective reality. They made known supremely the power of God to intervene in our lives on our behalf to rescue us from ourselves, our foolishness, our folly, and our slavery to the power of Sin and Death. That is why St. Paul tells us to reckon ourselves dead to sin. By this he meant for us to do the math, so to speak. When we do the math, we discover the sum of what is already there. For example, when we count the cash in the register, we learn what was there already. We don’t create a new reality; rather we affirm the existing reality. Christ has died for us and been raised from the dead to proclaim God’s victory over Sin and Death, and when we are united with Christ in a living relationship with him, St. Paul promises here that we too share in Christ’s reality, whether it feels like we do or not. Again, notice nothing is required of us except an informed (or reckoned) faith. We look at the reality and calculate it to be true so that we learn to trust the promise that has not yet been fulfilled is also true.
How does this happen? St. Paul doesn’t tell us how, only that it does happen beginning with our baptism. When we are baptized we share in Christ’s death and are buried with him so that Sin’s power over us is broken (not to be confused with living a sin-free life, something that is not mortally possible because as St. Paul reminds us in verses 6-7, we are not totally free from sin until death). We have died to sin and can no longer live in it because we have been transferred into a new reality, God’s new world that was inaugurated when God raised Christ from the dead. So in our baptism we begin our new life with Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.17), flawed as that might look at times. What St. Paul is talking about here is a matter of will. In chapter 8, he will talk about the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives to help us live after the manner of our Lord. Here St. Paul simply tells us that we have been given a great gift in the death and resurrection of Christ and through our relational union with him. If we have been given such a great and life-saving gift, why would we not together want to live our lives in the manner Christ calls us to live them? Today is Fathers’ Day and most of us who were/are blessed with good fathers seek to live in ways that honor our fathers or their memories. If we do that for folks who cannot give us life or raise us from the dead, how much more should we want to live our lives in ways that bring honor to God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ? This is what dying to sin looks like. It often looks messy on the ground and in our lives, but because it is the power of God at work in us and for us, it is a done deal nevertheless. If this isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is, my beloved.
So we have died with Christ and are raised with him. We’ve been delivered from the dark dominion of slavery to the dominion of freedom and life and light, the Father’s kingdom. Now what? Well, for starters it means we are no longer afraid. We have peace with God, real peace, a peace that was terribly costly to God, and we also have life that cannot be taken from us. Sure our mortal bodies will die, but that’s nothing more than a transition. We have no reason to fear death, even the worst of sinners who have genuinely given their life to Christ, because we believe him to be the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25). It means we reject living our lives in the darkness of sin. It means we reject false realities and are willing to speak out boldly against them. It means we are willing to love even the most unloveable people (and believe me, we are seeing more and more of them every day), starting with ourselves. It means we are willing to speak out against injustices of all kinds. It means we have compassion for people, realizing they are without a Good Shepherd who will love and heal them just like he is loving and healing us. It means we recognize all human beings as being made in God’s image and therefore worthy of our highest respect and honor, even when they do nothing to earn it.
Our Lord had something to say about this in our gospel lesson. There he tells us essentially the same thing St. Paul has told us in our epistle lesson. Preach the gospel boldly because it is the only way for real healing, goodness, justice, and forgiveness to happen. Be ready to challenge false gospels and narratives that are death-dealing and destructive. Know you will be called all kinds of vile names in an attempt to silence you, and some of you will be killed along the way. But don’t worry. Your effort to proclaim the Truth of the Good News will be made revealed to all by God the Father come judgment day, even if your voice isn’t heard now. But don’t keep silent out of fear of reprisal. Even if they kill you, I have won back your life by going to the cross for you. It’s a done deal. So don’t be afraid. Proclaim the Good News of my death and resurrection, of God transferring folks (not systems—listen if you have ears) from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of life only through me. Just don’t keep silent in word or deed. If you do, I will disown you come judgment day because your silence proclaims you really didn’t believe in my promise to rescue you from Sin and Death. Your faithful living and bold proclamation will be terribly costly to you, but count it a blessing because if you are truly acting faithfully and proclaiming my Truth, the only Truth, you have my promise that nothing in all creation will harm you or separate you from me or my love (cf. Romans 8.31-39).
My beloved, as I watch dark forces trying to dismantle and wipe out this country’s history and ethos, I can no longer remain silent and I encourage you not to remain silent if you are as troubled as I am about the state of our nation. Besides regular and fervent prayer for our nation, I’m not sure exactly what that is going to look like for me, but I cannot stand by silently and watch a false narrative and divisive ideology that is decisively anti-Christian be foisted on this nation. I am not talking about being a super patriot or about political solutions because fearful and arrogant politicians are a massive part of the problem. I am talking about the people of God, you and me, finding and embracing our identity in Christ to speak the truth in love to forces who are preaching lies and attempting to intimidate and silence us through their false and divisive narrative. When you start pulling down statues, erasing chunks of history, and not allowing historical figures to be human, you are doing what tyrants have done throughout history. If you don’t believe me, check out how the Reign of Terror came about in France. History doesn’t repeat itself perfectly but you will find some very disturbing analogues there, starting with the radical Jacobins’ refusal to believe in the Christian faith or any religion other than their own secular one. They renamed streets and institutions and even developed a new calendar in an effort to repudiate their history. They attempted to create a whole new and false reality and took no prisoners in the process, only to have their own hate-filled narrative ultimately collapse on them. When folks try to create an “us-versus-them” mentality, when they attempt to pigeonhole the narrative of history into oppressors oppressing the oppressed, they are no longer dealing with the reality of history and ironically are wiping out chances for history to teach about the good and bad of this country. The very foundation of democracy depends on the ability of humans to act wisely and humanly, rather than myopically and selfishly, and if the forces in our country today prevail, we will see the end of democracy. While this country is far from perfect, it has offered the best hope for human flourishing in history, in part, because we have been so influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition that must flourish if democracy ultimately is to flourish.
As God’s people in Christ, we must work hard in the coming months to find and embrace our identity in Christ first and foremost so that he can equip us to be his voice and embody his goodness, justice, mercy, and love to one and all in these tumultuous times. Whatever we do, it means we do it gently and without rancor and vitriol. It means we are gentle as doves and wise as serpents. We learn to do that through regular worship, Bible study, prayer, partaking in the eucharist and through sweet fellowship with each other to love and support each other, even in our disagreements, because we realize we are all in the same boat and reject the false and arbitrary classifications and identities that divide rather than unite us. We have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of light and life in and through our crucified and risen Savior, in whom, and only in whom, we have redemption from our slavery to Sin and forgiveness for our ongoing sin and rebellion against God. We have died to sin and live now in union with Christ. Let us therefore embrace the only identity that truly heals, saves, and give life: Jesus Christ our Lord, and let that identity be the basis for our fearless and gentle witness as we proclaim boldly God’s love and Truth to a world hostile to the gospel but in desperate need of it. It is the only loving thing to do and as Christ himself reminds us, it will be a litmus test of our own faith when we stand before our Judge on the last day. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.