Tag: Redemption

Nature or Nurture? A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1A (Romans 5)

Hans Holbein the Younger – Adam and Eve (Kunst Museum, Basel)
  
Romans 5:12-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

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                Did you follow that? I know that Paul can get a bit tongue-tied as he makes his points. Nevertheless, this is one of the most consequential passages in the New Testament, as it has served as a key foundation to the doctrine of original sin. The question that emerges from the passage is not whether sin exists, but whether human sin stems from a genetic predisposition or from one’s social context. In other words, is it nature or nurture? Augustine would say nature. John Locke would have said nurture (Tabula Rasa—Blank Slate). Whether it’s nature or nurture, what seems clear from reading Romans 5 is that Sin and Death entered the picture through one person’s actions, and that person is Adam. While sin has come into the world via Adam, the solution to the problem comes through grace provided through another man, the man Jesus Christ.

In Romans 5 Sin is accompanied by Death. Both appear to be spiritual forces that have disrupted God’s creation. They have taken on a life of their own. The question we have continually asked is how Sin and Death have come to have dominion over human life. According to Paul, Death spread because of human Sin. This word concerning sin and death stands as the opening message from Paul to us during the season of Lent. Lent is a penitential season, set up to enable us to take stock of our lives and make any necessary changes to our lives. Thus, this is a good season for us to make a confession of sin. But confession of sin is only the beginning, not the end of the process. We needn’t take up any harsh practices such as self-flagellation, but we might make some lasting changes to our lives. The good news is that should we undertake this path, there is grace available to us in Christ.

                Many years ago, during my seminary years, I wrote a paper for my Systematic Theology class on the topic of original sin. In that paper, I made my case for why the doctrine should be rejected, while the doctrine of universal sin should be adopted. One of the central biblical texts I addressed was this one. While St. Augustine has been credited with creating the doctrine, it has much earlier roots, perhaps here in Romans 5. Augustine did offer a description of the means of transmission that has come to dominate in the Christian West, it’s not the only view. The Eastern Churches have taken a more modest view, but then they read the original in Greek, not Latin, the latter of which seems to have led Augustine and others to think in genetic terms (though that’s a bit of an anachronism as Augustine didn’t know about genetics, which is why he linked it to concupiscence). For Augustine, original sin is a genetic predisposition. We sin because we inherit that predilection from Adam. In the Enchiridion he writes that after Adam sinned he was exiled and “bound also his progeny, which y his sin he had damaged within himself as though at its root, by the penalty of death and condemnation.” His offspring born of him and his wife were condemned with him, for they had been “born through the concupiscence of the flesh which was their punishment” [On Christian Belief, p. 289]. In other words, we are tainted with original sin passed on through the sexual relationship. You understand then why celibacy became a path to godliness! Therefore, our only hope is the grace of God that comes to us through Christ. I will confess that I haven’t found that reading convincing, but it has been the dominant interpretation in Western Christianity since at least Augustine.

If we don’t follow Augustine, might we still speak of an “original” sin? Or better, might we speak of universal sin? Instead of embracing a genetic predisposition, might we speak of the universal presence of sin a consequence of living in a sinful environment? Take racism for instance. Are we genetically predisposed, or is this a learned behavior? My view is that it is a learned behavior that is sin. In other words, we might speak of systemic sin.

As top whether it is nature or nurture, Paul doesn’t say. He’s not so interested in the how as the what. He recognizes that this is a universal problem that requires a solution that can come to us only through the grace of God. This grace comes to us through Christ. According to Paul even as Sin and Death made their presence known through the actions of Adam and all who shared in them, the answer to be found in Christ, and all who receive his grace.

This reading from Romans 5 acknowledges the universality of sin, and Adam’s involvement in its spread (notice that Eve is not mentioned by Paul). What is often missing from the conversation is the possibility that salvation is spread to all. If, as I believe we should see Adam as a type, and Jesus has the countertype, might we see this as the foundation for the possibility that all will be restored in Christ? “For as in Adam all die, even in so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22 KJV).

Whether we understand this to be a nature or nurture issue, the reality is that we live an immoral society. There are sins that must be confessed. Too often we focus on minor sins, rather than the big ones, like racism or sexism. Perhaps this is because we rather not face the realities of our participation in that which is sin. But, if grace is to do its work in our society, then confession will be good for the soul and for the world.    

               

 

Be Not Afraid. You Are Mine – Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Isaiah 43)

Baptism of Jesus – Jacopo Tinteretto (Cleveland Museum of Art)
Isaiah 43:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
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                This is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, a day on which we remember that Jesus came to the Jordan, was baptized by John, and in some form or another, heard God speak from the cloud, declaring of him: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased!” (Lk. 3: 21-22). In other words, “I have called you by name, you are mine!” This the word revealed to us by the exilic prophet we call Second Isaiah. The word here in this reading is addressed to exiles, who may be wondering whether God has forgotten them. The answer we hear from the prophet is no, God has not forgotten. Israel is God’s creation. God will redeem. So, be not afraid because you belong to me! 
 
                Other than a reference to passing through the waters, hoping the rivers will not overwhelm them, there is little that ties the text to baptismal waters. It might seem as if this is a reference to the Exodus, which gets connected to baptism on occasion, but there is little evidence here that Isaiah is thinking of the crossing of the sea. Nevertheless, maybe there is more here than meets the eye. Maybe it’s not the reference to water itself that represents baptism, but rather the claim made by God on the people. Consider that on the day of Jesus’ baptism, God made a claim on him. God called Jesus in baptism to fulfill his purpose as God’s son, the beloved. Is not the same true for our baptisms? Do we not receive a new identity as a member of God’s family in Christ?
When it comes to baptism, I’m a “believer’s baptism” adherent. Although I was baptized as an infant, during my teen years I was rebaptized. As I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I wonder whether or not God’s claim was first placed upon me as an infant, when I was baptized at St. Luke’s of the Mountains in LaCrescenta, California. That may well be, but to make sure it took, I redid my baptism in a creek at a summer camp. While I didn’t hear the voice of God speaking to me in either circumstance, I believe that in baptism God makes a claim on us, redeeming us, and making us part of the family. So again, what word does Isaiah have to say to us on this particular Sunday?
Contextually, these verses speak of a change of situation. Judah, otherwise known as Israel, has returned home from exile. The word the people hear as they experience this change of situation is “Do not fear.” That is because God has called them by name, declaring “you are mine.” (vs. 1). This is where the waters come in, along with fire. Both water and fire suggest dangers faced by the people, whether literal or metaphorical. Don’t be afraid when faced with flood and fire, for I am with you. I love you. I will not abandon you. I have ransomed you. This word ransom appears in the Gospel of Mark (Mk. 10:45) in connection with Jesus’ impending death on the cross. Here in Isaiah, the ransom involves Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba. The context is likely the defeat of Egypt by Cyrus the Persian king, that allowed the exiles to return home. In the context of the Gospels, Peter Stuhlmacher suggests that “Jesus was prepared to perform a ‘substitution of existence’ for Israel, or more precisely for the ungodly who were supposed to be handed over for Israel’s salvation in the final judgment” [Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, pp. 148-149]. In whatever we understand the nature of this ransom, it is clear that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a way through the water and fire has been provided, so that we might find a place to reside, and therefore move beyond the life of fear.  
 
If this is the word that emerges from Isaiah today, what is it that causes fear in our lives so that we need a word of assurance? I look around at the world in which I live. There are many challenges facing us. There is political dysfunction in the United States. Authoritarianism is on the rise globally. Climate change is becoming a matter of great worry. Then there is the challenge of migration, often due to violence in the homelands of those who are on the move. There is good reason to be afraid. Yet, in the midst of these challenges, we hear a word from the prophet: “Do not be afraid.” Having said this, the prophet is not saying that there is nothing to be afraid of, only that God has made a claim on us. Hearing this word of assurance doesn’t mean we ignore the challenges of the day. In fact, we should name them. We should get them out in the open, so that they can be addressed.
Returning to our context, which is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we hear this word from Isaiah. So, as we hear these words, we ask how Jesus’ baptism, and with it his call, inform our own self-understanding? How might his baptism support us as we face the fear-producing challenges of the day?  David Schlafer writes:

On this day, it is worth noting that he who went through fire and water for us began his ministry in a baptism of blessing—being named as cherished by the one from whom he came. The Gospel writer employs Isaiah’s words to describe, not the inoculation of Jesus from all possible fears, but the available antidote to them. For those “named as Christ’s own forever” in baptism on this day, in the presence of a faith family all bearing God’s name, this can be a tangible act of being identified and strengthened for going “through” fear.   [Connections, p. 164].

In his baptism, God declared Jesus to be God’s son the beloved. In our baptisms we too are embraced by God, drawn into the family, so that we might walk together, encouraging one another, knowing that Jesus, the beloved Son of God, is the Suffering Servant who has ransomed us through his own death, walks with us through water and fire. We need not fear, for we have been called in the name of Jesus, and therefore, in Christ, having been baptized, we have heard the voice of God say to us: “You are mine!”  Indeed, we have been created for God’s glory.  

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.