I know a lot of people who will stop listening to anyone the minute the word sin is used. And that is hardly the only word in this passage from Paul that will turn folks off. Let’s tackle these words though and try to get past the connotations that have been attached to them and see if we can hear some of the profound things Paul is saying to us today.
For many sin is seen as a list of forbidden behaviors. The trouble is, the same behavior can bring death or life. Let’s take an activity that isn’t usually on such a list; working hard for example. Workaholics use work to avoid their lives, to not deal with something they need to deal with, to escape responsibility for their life outside of work, killing any life they have and becoming mere drones in the workforce. In contrast, people who may have struggled with depression or despair and could not find motivation in their lives, are suddenly given inspiration and they throw themselves into work, reviving them to life.
And far too often sin is talked about with no mention of grace at all. Notice that Paul is not doing that here. Without grace, the word sin becomes a weapon. It is used to control others behaviors, combined with threats of hell. It is used to shame people, to get them to feel horrid about themselves. It is used to remove all hope from people, to the point that even hearing the word drives them deep into self-loathing (or reactionary anger.) I know people who believe they are such sinners that they can’t approach God, can’t even enter a church. I know people who have been driven to atheism by a belief of their inevitable eternity in hell.
Note, though, how Paul uses the word shame in today’s passage; he speaks of the THINGS of which we now are ashamed. He does not say you should be ashamed of yourself. And honestly, unless you’ve been driven into such a deep victim mentality that you can’t see your part in anything, or unless you’re a sociopath, then there are things that you know in your heart that you’ve done wrong. And those are the things Paul is talking about – not the things others have told you you’ve done wrong. Do remember that time and time again Jesus tells us it’s our own sins we need to worry about, not the sins of others. It’s ultimately your own conscience you have to listen to. Or as Paul puts it elsewhere “the law God has written in your own heart.”
And isn’t listening to what others tell you you’ve done wrong and not what God has told your heart; isn’t that the reason why Paul confronted Peter? Peter, who we are told in Acts received a vision from the Lord telling him the right thing to do was to eat with gentiles, stopped listening to his own heart and started doing what the representatives from Jerusalem said he should do. For fear of them, Paul says in Galatians, but I’d suggest due to shame which did not come from Peter’s own conscience. I mean, Peter didn’t do humility very well, so often in the Gospels panicking, doubting or going straight into self-denigration. He seems particularly vulnerable to shame, even before the denial weighed so heavily on his heart. But when he is on fire with the spirit, connected to it, channeling what God wants to say through him, he can reach thousands of hearts!
Another of our challenging words today is righteousness. For many, righteousness has similar connotations to pious these days. One dictionary definition I’ve come across for pious is “making a hypocritical display of virtue.” I think this is due to thinking of righteousness as someone’s character rather than a process. One translation of today’s passage uses “being right with God” rather than the word righteousness. Being right with God is where authentic virtue comes from. Being virtuous doesn’t get you right with God. We can’t win God’s favor. We don’t earn God’s love.
In the previous chapter of Romans, Paul tells us that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Paul is talking about that reality, that we don’t get the free gift of grace because we’ve been virtuous. The gift comes despite our sin. That’s where the question “well, can’t we still sin then?” comes from.
When Paul tells us the wages of sin is death, I believe he is pointing out to us that any punishment we receive is from the sin itself, our actions have consequences. And also from the trouble we find in our own conscience. The punishment is not from God, it is from the thing itself. From God we receive a free gift. The question is how do we respond to this gift?
Can people admit to being wrong? Yes. Can people aspire to being right with God? I’d hope so. But can people embrace being obedient slaves? Obedience and slave are by far the most difficult words in this passage. Even Paul is a bit uncomfortable with them. He gives us the caveat, “I am speaking in human terms here.”
Anyone who has had to deal with an out of control addiction, though, can tell you about slavery and bondage in spiritual terms. Slavery to sin is a phenomenon. And it is a death sentence.
“No one’s gonna tell me what I’ve got to do!” is, I think, a popular understanding of the USA’s concept of freedom. Obedience IS slavery in the minds of many. I also think tied to that is the idea that one only obeys when they are told to do something they don’t want to do. It is doing something against one’s will.
And haven’t we abolished slavery for good reason? Haven’t we established that this is a wrong and terrible thing? Hasn’t it become anathema? Wouldn’t even thinking of ourselves as slaves be degradation of the worst kind?
In reading and re-reading this passage, I’m convinced Paul is NOT using obedience in a non-consensual sense here. It’s a free choice made by people who want to do something. He’s speaking to adults who have been baptized as adults. The preparation of baptism is the form of teaching to which they were entrusted. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” They have made a commitment to Christ that amounts (in human terms) to voluntary slavery, they have claimed (as Paul puts it in Galatians,) “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
As I said in the beginning of tonight’s sermon, the same activity can bring death or life. There are people who identify as love addicts or co-dependents. In such cases, people find themselves loosing themselves in another person. They try to get from a fallible human what they can only get from God. Losing one’s self in one’s lover, giving them all your power is ultimately annihilation, a death of the soul. Loosing oneself in God becomes a source of self-discovery, one finds out who one really is. One comes to life, maybe for the very first time.
We must make this choice free of shame. We must do this returning love we have already been given. Not grasping for love we think we don’t already have. We must believe we are loved and loveable! That our faults can be the very thing God can use for the best. As Paul discovered when he begged God to have one of his own faults removed. God refused, telling him “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And remember what Peter could do when he surrendered to the Holy Spirit!
In closing, let’s turn to our Gospel. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” It’s one of those moments in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus is speaking as he does so often in John. It’s a reminder of what we are ultimately seeking. Not merely being right with God, but union with God! The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The gift of tapping into the origin of life, and the sustaining life force itself!