Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 5, 2017
Romans 5:12-19 Commentary
Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes has a way of opening just about each one of his sermons with a pithy one-liner that grabs your attention even as it sets the tone for the whole sermon. In one of his sermons he opened with this:
Sooner or later we all face the frightening thought that we are stuck with ourselves.
Maybe at one time, in more heady days of our youth, we thought we might grow up to be this or that. We entertained the idea that by getting a certain level of education, by marrying the person of our dreams, by landing the kind of job we always wanted, we ourselves would, in the bargain, transform into a different kind of person altogether.
But the day comes when we wake up, wipe the sleep out of our eyes, take that first glance of the morning in the bathroom mirror, and who we see staring back at us is the same person with the same flaws and weaknesses and blemishes as we’ve always seen. In the movie A Beautiful Mind a former colleague visits John Nash about a year after Nash’s prolonged hospitalization for schizophrenia. Nash’s friend fumbles around awkwardly for the right thing to say. Nash finally says to him, “Nervous? I guess I would be, too. But I am, alas, stuck with me.”
But if this is an uncomfortable thought for us to have, it is a boon to the advertising industry as they day and night pour forth speech that tells us we need not be stuck with ourselves. We can be changed. How many advertisements proffer Fountain of Youth, Defy Old Age, Lose Weight Fast, Slow Down Aging, Amaze Your Friends, Become Your Own Boss, Fire Your Boss, Secure Your Financial Future, Become the Lover She’s Always Wanted. Whether it’s a set of stock market tips, a drug, a diet program, facial cream to get rid of wrinkles, or some mysterious elixir that is said to work wonders, the bottom line is forever the same: we can improve you. You don’t need to be stuck with yourself.
It’s all a lie, of course, which is maybe why the next most common set of advertisements we see are for Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and other similar drugs that are all anti-anxiety tranquilizers. Maybe that’s because when you’re finished trying to become another person through all those other offers, you realize none of them works and so need something to soothe your anxious, troubled mind. I am, alas, stuck with me, and you’re stuck with you.
But more than just this or that specific facet of our lives, we and people everywhere just generally have the sense that something’s not right. We’re not home, we’re not where we are supposed to be. The title of the first section of the Reformed confession The Heidelberg Catechism is “Human Misery,” but the original title in German was Elend. Elend in German does mean “misery” but the word itself carries with it the whiff of being an exile, feeling the kind of misery that comes when you are stranded far from home and can’t get back. It’s not just that we humans often feel we are not what we want to be but also that we are not where we ought to be, either.
C.S. Lewis observed that this sense of exile is common to humanity because we’ve fallen away from God’s creation intention and designs. We live east of Eden now and so frequently find ourselves sighing for Eden, too. When a fish is swimming in water, it doesn’t long to be somewhere else, say, flopping on the bottom of an aluminum boat or washed up on the gritty sand of a beach somewhere. When in its natural element, a fish swims in the water without ever even thinking about the water.
A fish in water no more ponders the water than you or I ordinarily ponder or much notice the air we breathe. In fact, the first time the reality of water may occur to a fish is when it gets stuck on a beach on the wrong side of a retreating tide. So also for us, Lewis claimed: if we were living the way we were made to live and in the place God had designed for us to live, we would not give our surroundings a second thought. The fact that we do feel restless, that we do wish we could change this or that about ourselves or about our environment is evidence that we’ve somehow been exiled from home.
In one of the New Testament’s most closely scrutinized and yet most famously difficult passages, the apostle Paul says the same thing in Romans 5. Death, sinfulness, the proneness to evil, and the condemnation attendant on all of that can be theologically traced back to one man named Adam. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” an old theological rhyme has it. In ways we cannot fathom, we were–the whole multi-billion lot of us–bound up with Adam and Eve and so are now implicated in the bad thing they did when they defied God’s good order. When they set themselves up as being wiser than God, when they refused the place that had been assigned to them, we all of us were right there with them. As Craig Barnes noted, Adam and Eve were given the whole garden except for just that one tree. But like so many people even to this day, Eve first and then Adam after her essentially said, “If I can’t have it all, then what I do have means nothing.”
Where did our corrupt nature come from? Mom and Dad. Our first parents. But why, and anyway how, does this work? After all, the Bible seems to teach that this thing often called “original sin” has two prongs: prong #1 is corruption but prong #2 is guilt. The first prong is easier to grasp than the second. In history various theologians have tried a whole battery of metaphors or images to convey this. How does Adam’s bad nature get down to me all these millennia later? Well, some say, it’s like pollution or poison poured into a river. If a company dumps hundreds of liters of mercury into a river, then no matter how far downstream you go, any fish you catch will make you sick. More recently people have reached for genetic images. Adam corrupted our DNA. The double-helix of our very nature got kinked and twisted. Today we know that the grandchildren of an alcoholic are genetically more likely to become alcoholics themselves than the descendants of people whose DNA code had not been sullied that way. So sin spreads through humanity the way pollution spreads down a river or the way bad genes get passed on from parent to child.
In short, we know that bad deeds have consequences for others. A pregnant woman who does crack cocaine will pass addiction on to her baby. The child will be born addicted and will face lasting brain damage and horrible withdrawal once the umbilical to the addicted mother is severed. This is just how it goes. Our parents affect us in many ways.
So the idea that we inherited corruption, a tendency to be unloving and sinful, can make a certain amount of sense to us. But what about that other prong of guilt? Because the Bible claims that it’s not just that we inherit Adam’s tendency to sin, we are guilty of Adam’s sin (and so worthy of punishment) even before we commit any sins ourselves. This is where things start to look a bit unfair. If a crack addict gives birth to an underdeveloped, crack-addicted baby, we could understand putting this woman in jail but who would want to put also the baby in jail on account of the mother’s crime? If Grandpa Pete was an alcoholic who killed a man in a drunken barroom brawl, why would we tell his tee-totaling great-grandson Joey that he needs to be punished for what Grandpa Pete did sixty years ago?
Oddly enough, Paul never seems to stop to wonder about the fairness of all this. He seems quietly to accept that the way things are is simply the way things are. This is how it works in the universe. The bad momentum Adam set into motion has been building ever since, sweeping the rest of us away in a floodtide of not just corrupt hearts but of guilty hearts, too. We are guilty by association.
And here’s where lots of sensible and good people object. Don’t punish me for what Adam did! Don’t tell me I was there with him because I wasn’t. Don’t tell me that he was a representative of all humanity because I never voted for Adam to represent me. At bottom, none of us likes guilt by association. For instance, most of us do not harbor deep-seated hatred of Arabs or Muslims and we have no interest in having America ride roughshod over Islamic cultures–we even despise it when our country does something bad. But as we know, terrorists make no distinctions. If you are an American, you are the enemy and presumed to embody every prejudice on the books. If you are face-to-face with an Al Qaeda operative, it won’t do any good to say, “But I myself am not like that.” Nope, you’re dead because you’re guilty by association.
We chafe under that in most any other circumstance of life and yet in the big picture of theology, we say that we are guilty not only for whatever we do bad in our own lives but guilty on account of our human link with Adam. It seems unfair. We don’t know whether Paul much pondered that apparent injustice but if he didn’t pause to address it, the reason is glaringly obvious: it was because Paul was bowled over and blown away by the comsically good news that this pattern works just as mightily in the opposite direction! Even if you wanted to allege some unfairness in Adam’s fall affecting us all, the gospel news is that now, in the inherently unfair nature of also grace, Jesus’ righteousness comes to us all.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” we sing. Our Christian answer is that by grace and through some mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, we were there. “You have been crucified with Christ” the New Testament tells us over and again. Now when God looks at you, he sees Jesus. In fact, it’s even mightier than just that. In Romans 5 Paul trips over his own rhetoric as he gets carried away by the glorious thought that what Jesus did is supremely more powerful than what Adam did. God didn’t do some spiritual arithmetic so as to say, “Well, let’s see, there are three trillion sins that need forgiving so my Son will die a death that will have just enough power that it will come out even with exactly three trillion spiritual merit points.” No, God didn’t calculate grace, he cascaded it! If the electric company sends you a bill for January saying that you owe $86.38, I imagine you’ll write out a check for, well, $86.38. But what has Paul so excited in this passage is that when God got, if you will, a bill for humanity’s sin saying that somebody owed about $1.4 million, God in Christ said, “Well, I’ll just write out a check for $1 billion! That should more than cover things!”
“Where sin abounded, grace hyper-abounded,” Paul says in verse 20 just beyond the boundaries of this Lectionary reading. The sin of Adam is no match for the righteousness of Jesus. It’s no contest. And this floodtide of grace comes to us without our deserving it at all. We get saved by association. It’s all a gift, as Paul makes so very clear in verses 15-17. If Adam gave humanity a gift that nobody wanted yet couldn’t refuse, now Jesus gives us a gift that everybody should want because, as Paul says in the final verse, it leads not just to life but to eternal life at that.
All of which brings us back to where we began. Sooner or later we all face the fear that we are stuck with ourselves. It’s the fallout of the first Adam’s rebellion that makes us feel that way. We’re exiled from the place for which we were made. We fall short of even our own fondest hopes for ourselves, much less any grand hopes God had for us once upon a time. We worry that we’ll never become what we wish we could be. We’ll never be thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough; we won’t ever find the job satisfaction that could infuse our days with meaning.
In the movie About Schmidt the main character is Warren Schmidt, a retired actuary who can calculate with a fair amount of precision when someone in a given life situation will die. Shortly after his retirement and the sudden death of his wife, Warren estimates he will die in about nine years or less. Near the end of the film he laments the futility of his past career and then says, “Soon I will die and not long after that everyone who ever knew me will die. Then it will be as if I never existed at all.”
Maybe we all think that at some point. So what can we say? Well, we can rehearse the fact that the Jesus who died for us understands what we feel, what we go through. But he loves and values us so much that he accepts us as we are and he has a gift for us. This gift is not some misguided program to improve this or that part of life. It’s not a stopgap, temporary measure to prevent bags under our eyes or make our teeth whiter. This gift won’t put more money into the bank and won’t necessarily make the boss treat us any nicer tomorrow than she did last Friday. Still, it’s a pretty wonderful gift. It’s grace. It’s the promise that Jesus has more than compensated for everything that ails us, for every dark thought that has ever plagued our minds, for every shortcoming we could ever name. Jesus wants to overwhelm us with a grace that accomplishes not a little improvement of our lives but a restoration of the life God always wanted us to have in the first place.
Sometimes we are disappointed at the face that stares back at us from the mirror first thing in the morning. We do have our regrets and disappointments in this life. And no preacher should try to dismiss those concerns for the people in the pews. But when we look into the mirror, we can try to look also through the mirror to the new selves we have become as recreated and restored in Christ.
“Now we see as through a glass darkly,” Paul wrote in another place. The tears in our eyes make it hard to focus, hard to see through to the image of us that God sees when he looks at us. But the gospel says that because of the gift given to us by Christ Jesus the Lord, we are in the process of rising up to the full stature of all we were ever meant to be. Sometimes we feel stuck with ourselves. But Jesus says, “No, my child. You’re not stuck with yourself. You are stuck with me, and I will never stop loving you. You mean the world to me. That’s why I died so that I could give the world back to you.”
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