Monday, September 28, 2009

Pentecost 17B - Romans Series

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”

Seems like an odd question, don't you think? Should we continue to sin so that we'll get more of God's love and mercy? Should we continue to hurt one another so that we'll receive more of God's forgiveness? Should we continue to inflict pain on ourselves so that we'll receive more of God's healing?

The answer seems as clear as the shine on my head.

But apparently, this wasn't just a rhetorical flourish on Paul's part. It was a real problem in some churches in Rome. People were “sinning” in order to get an extra dose of God's loving kindness. They were breaking God's Laws, intentionally seeking condemnation, simply so they would feel God's warm, forgiving embrace.

(Well, that was their story and they were sticking to it. The cynic in me wonders if that's just what they told their fellow churchies. “Ummm...yeah, I stole my neighbour's pig, but that was just so I could have another experience of God's amazing love, not because I needed to fill my freezer with tasty, tasty, bacon.”)

I had a little trouble following Paul's logic at first - “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” - I had troubling figuring out what he was saying because sinning “so that grace may abound” is not the charge leveled at Paul from 21st century Christians.

What people find hard about Paul today is that they're afraid that people will abuse God's grace, that they'll take God's forgiveness for granted, almost as an entitlement. They're afraid that folks will think,

“Well...I know that stealing this coffee mug from work is wrong, but God will forgive me.”

“I may get a little creative on my taxes, but, hey, everyone does it. Plus, we have a forgiving God.”

“What I do is my own business. It's between me and God. And God always forgives me.”

“I can do what I want because God will forgive me. That's God's job.”

That's the sort of abuse that some people are afraid of.

And the gut response from well-meaning 21st century Christians is to say, “Don't sin. Don't abuse God's loving grace by sinning. God may forgive you but that doesn't give you license to behave any way you want.”

Too much grace = too much sin. Same problem that Paul confronted, but in a different form. It's like they don't want this whole grace and forgiveness thing to get out of hand. And we certainly can't let that happen, can we?

We have to make sure that people behave properly. Being a Christian means doing some things and NOT doing some things. We need to set an example for the world by living according to God's commands. And we need to hold each other accountable for their behaviour, so people can get a hold of the sin in their lives, trapping it, then killing it.


Well, look what Paul does when dealing with those who would mis-use God's grace. He doesn't drop the hammer. He doesn't wave a finger in their faces. He doesn't tell them how much they've hurt God and others. He doesn't set up accountability groups nor does he call them to repent.

He simply reminds them what God has done for them. He reminds them of who they are and WHOSE they are:

“How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

We may recognize this passage from the funeral liturgy. It's the part at the beginning where the pastor is supposed to put the funeral pall over the coffin, symbolizing the promise that the deceased is covered by God's love and mercy, and the power of death has been destroyed, and newness of life – the resuurection of the dead – is a promise just a breath away.

And while all that is true, Paul isn't talking about grace just for dead people in this passage. Paul is saying that the living – you people, right? You're alive, last I checked! – the living RIGHT NOW have died and risen with Jesus. You are made new. You are living the resurrection here – today.

Paul goes on, saying,

“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he li
ves to God. So...consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

“So...consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Paul isn't saying, “Don't sin.” He's saying, your sin is dead. Your sin died when you died, when Jesus was nailed to the cross and took you with him. You are no longer a slave to sin. You are free. Your old sinful self went to grave with Jesus, and your renewed self rose with Jesus.

To those who were sinning even more that grace may abound, Paul says, stop wasting your time. Your sin is dead. Live in God's forgiveness.

To those who would worry that people would abuse God's grace by behaving any way they want, regardless of how God wants them to live, Paul says, “We can't abuse God's grace any more than we have when we nailed God's Son to a Roman cross. We will always mis-use and abuse God's grace. We can't NOT abuse God's grace. That's why it's called 'grace.'”

One thing that mainline churches, churches like Anglicans, United, Presbyertians, and us Lutherans have been accused of is not taking sin seriously enough. We've been accused, by some Christians, of being “wishy-washy,” that we don't confront the sins in each others' lives like other Christians do. That we don't have a robust understanding of sin. That we simply mirror the surrounding culture, that the people in our pews – you guys – aren't any different than non-church folks. That our churches aren't real churches. And because of this, God is judging us.

We've been accused of dishonouring God's grace by not trying live according to God's standards.

These accusations used to make me mad. Yes, they're insulting and self-righteous. Yes, these folks seems to bask in their shame rather than in God's forgiveness. And yes, they should take the log out of their own eyes before condemning the splinter – or log - in our's.

But after reading this passage from Romans I began to wonder who they think God is, what they think happened when Jesus hung on the cross. I began to think they maybe THEY don't have a robust enough understanding of sin if they think that we can get rid of the sin in our lives.

I began to wonder if their anger is really masking their jealousy: jealousy that we live our freedom and they live their guilt. I began to wonder if they don't trust God's grace to transform us. To change us. To work within us.

Paul is clear: God is changing you. God HAS changed you. God is changing and has changed you from the inside out, through the power of the Holy Spirit, “who calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy.” It's not our work that changes us. It's God's work.

Lean into it. It's like vaulting yourself into the air in skydiving – your parachute will hold you up. Make the jump – you've already died, in Christ -

So, now go and live in your forgiveness. Go and live your freedom. See what God is doing and has done in your life. See what God is doing and has done in the world. You have been made new. You are part of the world's transformation which began that morning when Jesus folded up his grave clothes and walked out of his tomb, the first born of a whole new world.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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