Tag: Sin

Dead to Sin, Alive to God — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3A (Romans 6)

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! 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 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. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

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                When I play Monopoly it’s always helpful to obtain at some point a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You never know when you’ll need it. When it comes to spiritual things, sometimes we treat grace similarly. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” That may be true, but it’s a sentiment easily abused (usually by the person driving the car, who cuts you off almost causing an accident). That’s why Paul told the Corinthians that while all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 6:14). Here in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read about the power of sin and the power of grace. Paul makes it clear that we have been justified by faith through the grace obtained through the death of Jesus. Death, Paul writes in Romans 5, came to humanity through sin, but life comes through Christ, who overcomes sin through his own death. But if grace is so powerful that it overcomes death, why not sin all the more so that grace has an opportunity to work its magic in our lives. As Luther declared: “sin boldly” (I don’t think Luther had libertinism here, though).   

 

                Grace is not, in Paul’s mind, a license to sin. It is instead an invitation to restart our lives by moving from one realm (sin) into another (grace). Paul isn’t naïve. He understands the power of sin to gain dominion over our lives. He may not have used the term systemic in relation to sin, but he understood that sin was a power that was present in the broader culture/society. Think here of racism. Why is it so prevalent in our society? Why do we find it so difficult to break free of its hold? If it was just a knowledge thing, we could break free so easily, but it runs so much deeper than that. To be in Christ means dying to that old realm where a system, like racism, continues to reign. Grace is the starting point, but it’s not the endpoint. So, to be in Christ means dying to the old realm and being resurrected into a new life that is under the dominion of Christ. Of course, if we open the door to let it sin back in, it will make its home in our lives once again. So, no, we should sin so that grace might have greater opportunity to display itself.

This leads us to baptism as that point wherein we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ. It is the point at which we exchange allegiances. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes: “Exchanging one dominion for another requires a change of allegiances. To continue in sin would show that one has not changed allegiances” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 107]. In other words, to rise to new life in Christ means that you can’t live as you once did. That old life marked by sin, by rebellion against God’s rule, has been left behind.

This change of identity is embodied in the practice of believer baptism by immersion. By being buried in the waters of baptism, we die to the old life. As we rise from the waters of baptism, we leave the old life behind. In the ancient church, baptism followed a lengthy period of teaching (Hippolytus in his Apostolic Tradition spoke of a three-year process), after which one was baptized. In those services, in which one often stripped off one’s old clothes before entering the baptismal pool, one would be asked to renounce Satan, before being buried in the waters of baptism and then given new clothes upon the exit from the baptistry. Our processes are not nearly as intensive as was true in the early years of the church, but the imagery remains powerful. In baptism we are buried with Christ, leaving behind the old life of sin, before being raised to new life, again with Christ, so that we might share in his resurrection.     

 

                We can’t sin so that grace might abound because if we’ve been baptized into Christ, we have died to sin and raised to new life. Therefore, neither sin nor death has dominion over our lives. Yet, we know, that in real life sin keeps tugging at us. It’s why churches often provide prayers of confession. It seems we need to die to sin anew each day. I know this is true of my own life. In part, this is because even if I have given allegiance to Christ in baptism, I still live in this world where sin rules. Karl Barth recognizes this challenge to our continued engagement with sin. He writes that “because and so long as I live in the body, I remain the old man, and am wholly and indissolubly one with him. Therefore the death of the old man and dissolution of my identity with him also involves the doing away of my union with this body. As the new man, I live no longer in it: as determined by time and things and men, I exist no longer” [Barth, Romans, p. 199]. We may have changed our allegiance, but as long as we experience this body of ours, we will be subject to sin. We can move toward that new life, as we change our allegiance, but truth be told, we will continue to wrestle with sin. We might not be as beholden as we were in the past, but it’s still there. The difference, is we struggle with sin, but no longer do we live in bondage to it.

                To quote another bumper sticker that is also easily abused, “please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” That is true. Sanctification is a process, a movement toward the full embodiment of God’s grace. That being said, imperfection is not an excuse for sin, including racism and homophobia. In the end, we are called to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. Thus, if we live by faith, then as Barth notes: “faith means seeing what God sees, knowing what God knows, reckoning as God reckons” (Romans, p. 206). This is the new life in Christ.  


Image attribution:  Baptism in the River Jordan during pilgrimage, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55206 [retrieved June 14, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Christian_Pilgrims_Celebrate_the_Epiphany_in_the_Jordan_Valley,_Jan_2011_(1).jpg.

 

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.    

               

 

I Have Sinned!  A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11B — 2 Samuel 11-12

I Have Sinned! A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11B — 2 Samuel 11-12

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. 

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus, says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

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                “It’s good to be the king!” Those are the words of Louis XVI as portrayed by Mel Brooks in History of the World, Part One. King David may have had similar thoughts when he spied Bathsheba bathing, while his army was off fighting his battles. When the king calls, you come. That’s just the way things work when a person has absolute power, or at least thinks that she or he has absolute power. David was king. He held absolute power, in part because no one in the inner circle would speak up. His closest associates, either out of devotion or out of fear, would keep silent. In other words, they were enablers of his darkest side. In the verses prior David had commanded the wife of Uriah (she is not yet named) be brought to him so he could engage in a sexual relationship with her. He saw some “thing” (I use thing here purposely), coveted it, and his aides made it happen. The question here is not whether the relationship was consensual, because in a situation like this the power differential is too great for anything to be called consensual. Bathsheba was not in a position to refuse David’s demands. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim points out “the passage plays on the dynamics between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and the intimacy of husband and wife versus sexual domination by a powerful man.” [Preaching God’s Transforming  Justice, p. 343]
David’s problem here is that things happened that led to a cover up, and the cover up led to discovery. What happened here is that the wife of Uriah got pregnant, while her husband was at the front fighting David’s battles. David had a problem on his hands. Bathsheba was pregnant, her husband was away at the front and thus wasn’t in the position to be the father, and David figured that fingers would point at him. So, he came up with a plan designed to protect his power. And he was king, and when in power you do what you must do to maintain that power. His first attempt was to bring Uriah home, hoping he would share his wife’s bed. That way, when she child was born, everyone would think it was Uriah’s child (and no one would be the wiser). Unfortunately, David’s plan didn’t work. Uriah was a man of honor, and if his men were at the front putting their lives on the line, he wasn’t going to enjoy the comforts of home. So, when David’s first plan didn’t work, he had Uriah put into a position at the front where he would surely be killed. Again, when you’re the king, you get your way. Uriah was sent into a situation where David could be sure he wouldn’t survive.  Thus, David’s problem was solved. Only his inner circle knew of the situation. He could then move on with life. Since Uriah was out of the situation, David felt safe to bring Bathsheba into his household, which included several other wives, including Michel, the daughter of Saul, and Abigail, the former wife of Nabal—who had insulted David and was struck down by God, allowing David to take her into his household (1 Samuel 25).
                As so often happens in life, bad decisions catch up with us. When no one else was willing to challenge David, who was known to be a man with a heart for God, God, who was displeased, broke the silence by sending Nathan the prophet to confront David. Nathan doesn’t challenge David directly. He uses a parable to get David to frame himself. The parable, which has become famous over time, speaks of a man who was raising a beloved lamb, treating the lamb as if it was his own daughter. Pet owners can understand. Then one day, a traveler stopped by to see this rich man—a neighbor of the owner of this beloved lamb. As a good host, he needed to provide the traveler with a meal, but the rich man didn’t want to slaughter one of his own animals to serve the traveler. Why should he when his much poorer neighbor had a lamb he could take and slaughter. If it is good to be a king, apparently, it’s good to be a rich man as well. This is what the rich man did. He took this beloved lamb and slaughtered it and had it served to the traveler. He had done his job of being a good host, and it didn’t cost him any of his own animals. Note here the power/wealth differential.
                When Nathan finished his story, David got indignant. How could the rich man do such a thing? If he had a great flock of animals to choose from, why take from the man with only one lamb? David immediately pronounced judgment. Off with his head!! How could he do such a thing? Then comes the famous punch line. Nathan turns to David and pronounces judgment: “Thou art the man.” Yes, in taking Bathsheba, the wife of one of his officers, bedded her (likely raping her), and then covering up the act by having her husband—who faithfully served him as an officer in his army—put in harm’s way, David was like the rich man in the parable. If the man in the parable deserved death, then surely David deserved the same.
                David’s deed was revealed. He deserved the punishment he believed the rich man in the parable deserved. David’s response is clear and direct: “I have sinned!” In other words, you caught me. He would be spared the death sentence, but his family, including the infant child, would suffer as a consequence. Psalm 51 is often paired with this story, suggesting that it is David’s confession of sin and desire to receive God’s forgiveness:
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
(Psalm 51:10-12)
  
                      The story is one of discovery, of repentance, and conditional forgiveness. It’s conditional in the sense that there are still consequences to be paid. David’s family life would get more complicated.  A son would rape his half-sister, leading to the sister’s brother taking revenge, and then that same brother revolting against David, and suffering an inglorious death. We celebrate David as a man of God, and yet he was a complicated figure.  The man who would be credited with writing many of the Psalms and the model for the later messiah, even Jesus himself, was a sinner, and a sinner who broke several important commands.
                As I read this, and considered David’s actions, I thought of the Ten Commandments. When you read this story as a whole it becomes clear that David was truly a lawbreaker (and thus a sinner). The first commandment broken by David was the last of the ten, the one that spoke of coveting the neighbor’s wife. We may find this commandment to be disagreeable, for it treats women as something to be owned. Thus, we might want to read this in a different way. David coveted someone who was in a committed relationship to another. Having broken the law against coveting, David began to break other laws. The next in line was adultery, in taking Bathsheba and perhaps raping her, he entered an adulterous relationship. Finally, to cover up the previous sin, he conspired to commit murder. David can’t plead innocence because he didn’t pull the trigger. He set the who thing up, and so he is ultimately responsible. David was a sinner and a lawbreaker. Ironically, perhaps, there are Christians justifying the behavior of a certain President by pointing to David’s own behavior. I’m not sure that works well.
So, it may be good to be the king, but that doesn’t make one honorable or just because one is king or queen or any other position of authority. Power can and does corrupt when it is absolute. The best way to prevent misuse is to distribute it, but not only distribute it (as in the three branches of government in the United States), but to empower the poor. It also requires empowering those traditionally standing outside of power, especially women. As Grace Kim notes, “in a patriarchal society men have more power than women, who are sometimes viewed as little more than sexual objects.” To illustrate this point, she points out that women are often casualties of war, when they are sexually molested or raped. As a Korean, she knows the stories well of the Korean women who, during World War II, were forced to serve as “comfort women” to service Japanese soldiers. She writes that “sexual sins against women continue worldwide, and congregations and denominations need to bring these issues to public awareness so that they can be addressed” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 344].  Such is the story of David, the one who coveted his neighbor’s wife, committed adultery by raping her, and then murdering her husband to cover up his deed.  This could occur because he possessed unquestioned power. Only the intervention of God, speaking through Nathan the Prophet, could overturn this misuse of power.

Triqueti, Henri Joseph François, baron de, 1804-1874. Thou shalt not commit adultery (Nathan confronts David), from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55139[retrieved July 28, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nathan_and_David.jpg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert 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.