God’s Gift in Jesus
It is only the slightest of exaggerations to say that I could spend an entire year with you here at Central United trying to plumb the depths of Romans 5 and still would no doubt come up short. Never fear, though. That's not going to happen; I am here for just today. But there are incredibly great spiritual riches for us in this chapter and today in the time we have we are only going to skim the surface. But I hope it will be profitable. I hope we will go home knowing that God has spoken a word of both sustaining hope and unsettling challenge.
The idea for this sermon began with a few sentences of the commentary by Bishop Tom Wright. “The church as a whole has yet to take seriously the question of how to translate its allegiance to this Lord, who established divine justice and peace through his own death, rather than through the death of those who stood in his way, into action in the world. Comparatively little attention has been given to the question, How might God’s reconciling action in Christ become the ground and model for the reconciliation of human enemies?” (on line, IPreach.com).
Let me begin with a scene with which many of you are all too familiar. A number of years ago we visited my sister in Seattle. On the way, Chris indulged one of my many quirks—we flew to Vancouver and took the 6:00 p.m. Amtrak train from there to Seattle, a beautiful trip where in some places you can see mountains from one side of the train and sunset over the Pacific from the other side. Coming back we flew the whole way and went through airport security. As we snaked through the line feeling like cattle on the way to becoming dinner for two at the Keg, Chris struck up a conversation with a woman who looked like the devoted and fun-loving grandmother of some lucky child. To make a long story short, she said she was just hoping to get through the line without being strip-searched as she had been on her last trip. This is the world to which we belong.
There was a time not all that long ago when at least the western world was almost giddy with the prospects for how great the world was going to be anytime soon. Fleming Rutledge writes about the optimism of the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who in 1970 wrote “I believe a new cultural form is emerging. …The elders used to be able to say to the young, ‘I know because I used to be young [like you].’ But now the young can say, ‘Yes, but you are not young in the world I am young in, and you never will be.’ If the elders accept this new arrangement, Mead wrote, then the children will be ‘free to grow, straight and tall, into a future that must be left open and free’” (Not Ashamed of the Gospel, 158). I don’t know anyone even in the ivory towers of academia that has kept a firm grasp on that sort of wishful thinking.
What we have instead is a world fearful of terror attack, religious extremism, and online abuses, including pornography, identity theft, and predators stalking children unawares. What happened in the past forty years to turn all that optimism upside down? At the risk of sounding like a preacher at the end of his intellectual resources, the answer of the text is clear. What happened is sin!
G. K. Chesterton, a wonderful author and social commentator, once suggested the doctrine of original sin is the only the Christian doctrine that can be proved, empirically verifiable and validated by 3500 years of human history. It is not something I have kept track of precisely, but my guess is that one of the questions I have been asked most often is about this business of original sin. Are we all sinners from the very beginning? Is that tiny, precious and vulnerable little one brought home from the hospital less than a week old already a candidate for that name tag which reads Miserable Sinner? Is this what Paul is talking about when he says sin came into the world through one man?
I wonder if the concept of sin is something, at least in part, very personal to Paul. As most of you know, when we first meet Paul in the New Testament he is known as Saul and he is anything but a follower of Jesus. Such a person we would now call a religious fanatic, scrupulously devoted to the doctrines of Phariseeism. The first martyr of the church recorded in the Acts of the Apostles was Stephen and it was Saul who tended the coats of those who took up the stones of death. And Saul approved of their killing him (Acts 8:1). Saul then became one of the high priest’s most aggressive agents as he sought out Christians and had them brought back to Jerusalem as captives. When one reads just that part of the story it is hard not to think of the bombing of those celebrating in Pakistan this past Easter.
But Saul is confronted by the resurrected Lord in a vision on the road to Damascus. He becomes convinced that Jesus is Messiah and that God has chosen him to proclaim that message far and wide. He is changed; he becomes a new person with a new name: Paul. One of the things he comes to understand is that rather than being righteous he is a sinner. But more than that, I believe Paul became convinced that sin was first of all a matter of who we are and then a matter of what we do. Just about everyday I have what my family refer to as a sneezing fit, usually about four or five sneezes one after the other. The sneeze is something I do—behind those sneezes is likely a mild allergy, something within.
Back to the question about the baby. Is he a miserable sinner? If he isn’t now, he’s soon going to be. Sin is a stain on the whole of the world. Sin is a stain on the life of that child. The undeniable fact is this: “the orientation adopted by those who first committed sin seems now a fixture in human nature” (Westerholm, Preface to the Study of Paul, quoted in Talbert, Romans, 158).
Our only hope is God. Our only hope is for God to re-write the script of history. Navigating through Romans 5:12–21 is difficult. The arguments are not easy to follow and the concepts are foreign to us and our world. For example Paul says Adam is a type of the one who was to come. This is a style of argument known as typology. For example, the gospel writers described John the Baptist using the characteristics of the prophet Elijah. In so doing they were saying he was the Elijah who had been promised to return. Peter, in his first letter refers to the trip taken on the ark by Noah and his family as a “type” of baptism. In other words, the author is claiming the Old Testament person or example helps to illuminate the new thing God is doing.
Let me be clear, it does not matter at all for Paul’s argument if you believe Adam was an identifiable person or is simply the name given to the idea of the first human. Adam is part of the creation, brought into being according to Genesis 1:26 on the sixth day. It is intended within creation that humans will live in relationship with God, a fellowship expressed by the image of the garden of Eden. That relationship is broken by sin and so death spread to all because all have sinned.
Paul intends, I believe, for us to look for the seeds of the new creation in the old. In other words, there is a first Adam in the first creation and there is a second Adam in the new creation. Jesus is that second Adam and instead of death spreading to all, we are given the opportunity to obtain eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This happens because while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Here is where we will spend the remainder of our time today. The background of this statement is likely a recognition by Paul of those who had given up their lives as a statement of loyalty to the Torah, the law of God. It is interesting to me that Paul writes this to the church in Rome, for it is Rome, of course, that is now the world’s imperial power, and it is Rome that demands allegiance from all its citizens. There were Jews who chose death rather than be disloyal to the laws of God.
But, says Paul, we are not talking about dying in order to save a righteous person or a good person. We are talking about the death of God’s Messiah, who died for those weak, ungodly, for those who are sinners. In other words, what the world needed was a dramatic act of re-creation and God has done that through the death of Jesus, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Let’s look at this as objectively and honestly as possible. Again, no matter what we might think about the existence of sin in the life of an infant, we can all agree sin is now a fixture in human nature. Sin entered into human life through Adam and became the enemy of humanity. God is intent on defeating that enemy and began the march to victory through the new Adam, Jesus, who died and was raised. This is the decisive act in the new creation.
This is one of those biblical oxymorons that we are used to accepting because that’s what we do. Jesus said anyone who wants to save their life must first lose it. How does one save something by losing it? In our text Paul tells us the way in which God gains the victory of new life is by allowing his Son to endure the ultimate defeat of death on behalf of sinners—not the righteous, not the Nobel prize winners, but sinners!
In part of our text, Paul then goes on to give details about what has happened as a result of Jesus’ death grace has abounded for the many; the gift brings justification; instead of death, there will be eternal life.
Now, all of us would agree, I think, that even if we don’t quite grasp the complexities of Paul’s arguments, we rejoice in the results of what God has done through Jesus. In other words, our salvation, our wholeness, our life owes its very existence to the new creation brought about through the death of Jesus.
What does this mean for our world? What does it mean for our church? What does it mean for the disagreement that you and I are going to have next week? To quote Bishop Wright once more: “How might God’s reconciling action in Christ become the ground and model for the reconciliation of human enemies?”
Friends, I suggest the place we start is our sense of perspective. Let me confess to you that I am guilty most of the time of having a “first Adam perspective” on the world. In other words, I see not the victory of God in Christ gaining ground, but I see the stain of human sin and its influence. So, in that disagreement you and I are going to have, looking from a “first Adam perspective” all I can see is that, no matter the wisdom of your arguments, if I give in I have lost ground. (If you will forgive an illustration from the world of sports, it seems to me that this "first Adam perspective" is at the heart of the nonsense that bubbled over into a brawl during last Sunday's baseball game between Texas Rangers and the Blue Jays.)
I am not arguing for all of us to be doormats, ready at a moment’s notice to have the world hang a “kick me” sign on our backs. I am arguing for a “second Adam perspective,” that demonstrates at every step that we are ready and willing and able to look at life on the basis that Christ has made it new. God could not have gone further to obtain life for us, to reconcile us to him, to give us peace. In this new world winning is not when I get my way or you get yours; winning is when we both choose what God wants. It will only happen in the world when it begins right here with us.