Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 1, 2020

Romans 5:12-19 Commentary

It’s always humbling for my wife and me to have a problem with our computer or cell phones.  After all, we, on whom our sons depended for so many years, must now largely depend on them to help us.  I’ll never be as technologically savvy as our thirty-something sons.

Fleming Rutledge, who lent me some ideas for this Commentary, refers to a lecture that Margaret Meade gave in the 1960’s about technologically savvy children.  She spoke of “prefigurative” and “postfigurative” cultures.  She referred to a postfigurative culture as one in which children learn from their elders.  A prefigurative culture is one in which elders learn from their children.

In her book, Culture and Commitment, Meade wrote, “I believe a new culture is forming … 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 were never young in the world I’m young in, and you never will be.”  If elders just accept that, Meade argued, children will be “free to grow, straight and tall, into a future that must be left open and free.”

Today Margaret Meade’s views seem both naïve and arrogant.  Of course, the various generation gaps about which she wrote still exist.  Yet Meade assumed that adults would have nothing to teach the young about what they should do.  She thought all we elders could do was open dialogue with young people who would then “lead the elders in the direction of the unknown.”

While they may not know Margaret Meade’s name, a generation of parents now seems to have little confidence that they have anything to teach their children.  So it’s tempting for us to simply turn our teenagers loose.  It’s easy for some parents to say, “We trust our children,” forgetting that children not only need, but also often crave loving, wise guidance.

If you doubt that, walk through any place in which young adults hang out.  Listen to them talk about things that might make their parents cringe.  Yet, Rutledge suggests, if you were to ask their parents about it, at least some of them would answer, “What are you going to do?”

Margaret Meade wrote about a future full of possibilities into which our savvy young people would lead naïve old folks.  Even near the end of the 20th century, some people still talked about such a wide-open future.  Things like terrorism, climate change and income inequality seldom shadowed our conversations.

Yet we’re learning that dark shadow refuses to simply disappear.  The dark clouds that hung over the twentieth century’s Holocaust still loom over 21st century genocide.  The undisciplined investing that led to a depression last century still hovers over economic struggles that grow, in part, out of undisciplined energy consumption.

In the 60’s my friends and I played Hide-and-Seek, football, basketball and baseball from almost dawn to dark — if school didn’t get in our way.  No one called us on our cell phones to discuss what we were doing.  Our parents didn’t arrange play dates for us.

Of course, things like child abuse, racial tensions and the Cold War haunted our generation.  Yet any claim that the 21st century’s “wide open future” turned out to be any better than that seems misleading, at best.

And what sort of “free and wide-open” future is our current generation creating?  God has blessed churches with absolutely remarkable young adults who will soon make wonderful leaders.  Yet who knows if their contemporaries will lead us into a future of global meltdown, dirty bombs, pandemics and more genocide?

Those who proclaim Romans 5 don’t gather for worship to celebrate an open future that’s full of all sorts of wonderful possibilities.  God’s adopted sons and daughter instead gather to remember an ancient story that keeps repeating itself.  Christians remember the cycle of foolishness, cruelty, destruction, disease and death.

We remember how “sin,” as Paul grieves, “entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (12).   God’s dearly loved people remember how one man’s sin scarred all of creation, including each of us.

Of course, as Rutledge notes, when Paul talks about “sin” in today’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, he isn’t talking about the sex our young adults have outside of the context of marriage or the income we’ll fail to report this year.  When the apostle talks about “sin” in our text, he’s talking about a kind of evil power.

When God created our first parents, God created them in God’s image.  God also pronounced everything God had made as very good.  Evil had no real home in our world.  Yet in partnership with its wicked cousin “death,” evil is now spreading through our world like a rampaging virus.

So when Jesus was born, a mighty force immediately challenged and threatened him.  That, says Rutledge, is one reason it was so important for him to cast out demons.  By doing so Jesus was, after all, driving them out of the territory that Satan, sin and death had claimed.  A hungry Jesus even went head-to-head with Satan in the wilderness.  That showed us that God has a very real enemy who’s committed to our complete destruction.

It all goes back, mourns Paul, to when God put Adam into the Garden with a choice whether to live in harmony with God’s good creation and creatures, or live in alienation from them.  Adam could choose to live free from sin, or enslaved to sin.

Adam and Eve, of course, chose to disobey God, wedging the door open for evil to enter our world.  Yet by doing so, they somehow condemned their descendants to no moral choice.  While people may choose which car to buy or cereal to eat, we naturally can’t choose whether to step outside of sin and death.

All of Adam and Eve’s sons and daughters are now somehow born into rebellion and death.  Since sin and death have us, by nature, trapped in their iron grip, we don’t have the power to create a wide-open future.  By nature, Paul suggests, our future naturally looks a lot like our past.

Yet that’s not the end of Paul’s message.  Thankfully, he announces a future that God has opened for God’s dearly beloved people.  While Adam’s disobedience has brought misery, Christ’s obedience has brought salvation.  While Adam’s voluntary disobedience brought death to us who willingly disobey, Christ’s voluntary obedience brings us life.  While judgment followed human disobedience, God’s acceptance of us followed Christ’s obedience.

Quite simply, Adam’s death meant the spiritual and physical death of all people, including both those who proclaim Romans 5 and those who hear us.  However, Christ’s death means eternal life for all those to whom God chooses to graciously give it.

After all, Christ successfully met all the power of sin, Satan and death head-on.  He alone stood up to their relentless assaults throughout his life, but especially on the cross.  Jesus victoriously emerged from that titanic battle.

So, as Rutledge notes, there is no new son of Adam or daughter of Eve who can lead their elders into the future.  Our young people are also, after all, naturally the children of the same old disobedient Adam and Eve.  There is only One who can lead us into God’s future.  That is Jesus the Christ.  He alone can create a new humanity out of Adam and Eve’s children.  Jesus Christ alone can lead God’s chosen people into a hopeful future.

Yet God’s people are not naïve.  Those who try to participate in Christ’s victory our way fall back under the power of evil.  God’s beloved sons and daughters can only participate in Christ’s victory over sin, Satan and death God’s way.

That’s the way of confessing that we’ve willingly surrendered to slavery to sin and death.  God’s way is that of humbly receiving God’s grace with our faith.  It’s the way of service to God, God’s creatures and God’s creation.

God’s way is the way of the One who prayed from the cross for those who were torturing him to death.  God’s way is the way of the Jesus who begged God to forgive those who were persecuting him to death.

Illustration Idea

The man who hacked to death Hutu Iphigenia’s husband and five of her children was a Tutu named Jean-Bosco.  Today, however, Iphigenia works together with Jean-Bosco’s wife Epiphania to make beautiful baskets.  She also shares her family meals with the killer she knew and his wife.

Jean-Bosco spent seven years in jail for his part in Iphigenia’s family’s massacre.  However, while on trial he confessed to the slaughter and asked Iphigenia and others to forgive him.

Iphigenia admits that it wasn’t easy to forgive her family’s murderer.  In fact, she didn’t speak to Jean-Bosco and his wife for four years.  So how did she manage to finally forgive them?  Iphigenia told, “I am a Christian, and I pray a lot.”

You don’t have to hear her amazing story to know that sin, Satan and death are still extremely powerful.  But Iphigenia’s story helps reminds us that Jesus Christ is even more powerful.  God’s people see the forces of evil wreak untold havoc almost everywhere around us.  Yet the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ brings immeasurable blessing through Christ’s saving life, death and resurrection.


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