September 16, 2007

New Clothes: Experiencing God’s Love and Grace (Part 1)
Romans 5:1-21

You’ve no doubt heard the expression, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals two unmistakable themes: the world is desperately broken, and God is in the process of fixing it. That much at least is clear. You may have no awareness of the finer points of theology, and you may feel like you are in over your head when you read the legal minutia in Leviticus, the prophetic pronouncements in Isaiah, or the symbolic figures in Revelation. But this much about the Bible is clear enough. The world is broken, and God is fixing it.

These same two themes appear in the first of our ten core values, one explicitly, and the other by implication: “Experiencing God’s love and grace: We value the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.” And what a wonderfully exciting core value it is. What a place to begin. Love. Grace. Salvation. Transformation. God. God at work recreating you, me and all of the world. God’s love and grace are beautiful new garments to put on, aren’t they? But this first value, it seems to me, begs one unavoidable question: “What does God save us from?” The sheer joy and splendor so thoroughly couched in these words only reinforce the disturbing notion that something is terribly wrong and in need of fixing.

So what is wrong? As a starting point, let me call you back nearly 700 years in time to medieval Europe. Quite suddenly and mysteriously, people all over Europe, not to mention Asia and the Middle East, grew seriously ill. High fevers. Glaring rashes. Shortness of breath. And, in millions and millions of cases, death. All told, some 75 million people, including roughly 50% of the population of Europe, died as a result of this devastation. To this day, the Black or Bubonic Plague, as we frequently call it, ranks at the top of the list of human catastrophes.

What happened? Many questions, as you might guess, remain unanswered. What seems clear enough is that a dreadful bacterial infection, found most often in rodents and fleas, was brought to Europe by infected soldiers and merchants from either central Asia or northern India. This infection, against which the unsuspecting people had no natural defenses, simply spread like wildfire from one victim to the next. So devastating were the effects of the infection that it continued to wreak havoc throughout Europe for the next 300 to 400 years, in one wave or epidemic after another. Some 75 million people, once again, lost their lives. By comparison to the Black Plague, the casualties brought about by the outbreak of AIDS in recent years are still relatively low, if you can imagine it. Some 25-30 million people have died from AIDS worldwide up until now, and the population of the world is over 15 times what it was back in the 14th century. Over one billion additional people would have to die of AIDS today—God forbid!—for the fatalities to be roughly equivalent to those of the Black Plague. Yet even the Black Plague pales in comparison to the epidemic described by the Apostle Paul here in Romans 5. That epidemic the Bible simply calls sin.

There are, we might note, striking similarities between the Black Plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century and the sin epidemic that, as Paul writes here, has devastated the human race throughout history. Romans 5 must be among the most influential passages in all of Scripture—it has shaped Christian thought in profound ways. In verse 12 in particular—a verse that begins a sentence that never seems to end!—Paul offers four significant observations about sin that sound strikingly similar to accounts describing the Black Plague: (1) sin came into the world, (2) sin came into the world through one man, (3) death came through sin, and (4) death spread to all because all have sinned.

Let’s unpack each of these for a few moments. Sin, first of all, came into the world. Sin, that is to say, was not part of the world when God first created it. The world in its original form was flawless, totally without defect, fashioned to perfection by its designer. The picture of God creating the world and its inhabitants in Genesis 1 and 2 calls to mind images of Michelangelo forming the Pieta, Antonio Stradivari fashioning a violin and Mozart crafting a symphony. The world that God created, much current evidence to the contrary—wars, poverty, racism, addictions—was perfect. When he was finished, God looked at what he had made, and saw that it was “very good” (Gen. 1: 31). Sin, like the Black Plague making its way into an unsuspecting Europe, came into the world from outside.

Sin, Paul continues, came into the world through one man. While it is apparent that Paul has one person—Adam—in mind, the fundamental lesson here is that sin came into the world through humanity’s own wrong-doing. Like the Mongol warriors and traders bringing that dreaded bacterial infection into Europe so many years ago, so too did Adam bring sin into the world. He messed things up. God didn’t. For that matter, neither did Satan or other powers of darkness. God created the world and with it the possibility of sin or unfaithfulness, and the powers of darkness took full advantage of that spiritual “loop-hole,” so to speak. But Adam took the bait. He disobeyed God. He missed the mark. Sin came into the world through the choices of humanity.

Thirdly, Paul further develops his argument by asserting that death came through sin. Death, like sin, was not a part of God’s original creation. God created man, male and female alike, to live in fellowship with him forever. Nothing, in fact, could be more antithetical to the very goodness of creation than death—it is contrary to everything that God had in mind. Death, Paul makes clear, came through sin. Sin is fatal—it is terminal. And like those infected with the Black Plague, Adam died.

But Paul’s analysis doesn’t stop here. I wish it did. It would be nice if we could leave his discussion in the past. It would be far more consoling if we could say that sin took its toll on Adam and perhaps even another generation or two, and then disappeared like the Black Plague. I, after all, do not have the bacterial infection that ravaged medieval Europe. Do you? But we can’t stop here. Sin, Paul concludes, spread to all “because all have sinned.” “One man’s trespass,” he adds, “led to condemnation for all (v. 18).”

At this point, Paul’s thinking sounds a bit odd to our western sensibilities. We tend to think quite often in isolated, individualistic terms. What I do is my business. What I do with my life is of relatively little consequence to those around me. Paul doesn’t think that way, at least not here. He is thinking instead as one who participates in a clan or community, the members of which are profoundly connected to each other. What one person does deeply affects the whole. What happens to one member happens to all. Theologians have for centuries attempted to unpack this thought, wondering how in the world sin is passed from one generation to the next. The Bible itself, however, leaves the thought to stand on its own without further explanation. When Adam sinned, so did you and I. When Adam turned his back on God, so did you and I. And when Adam died, so did you and I. The idea that in Adam we all sinned, however we choose to explain it, the Bible insists upon.

And who can argue with the data? The effects of sin, after all, are everywhere, and we must be careful not to allow the serenity and comfort of Upper Allen Township to blind us to this simple fact. The world remains broken to this very day. The sin epidemic has not subsided. Individually, sin continues to corrupt the heart, deaden the mind, and paralyze the soul. Is there anyone here who has not thought an evil thought, spoken an unkind word, or committed an ungodly act? Relationally, sin continues to drive wedges between husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and people and their neighbors. Is there anyone here who has not been mistreated or even abandoned by someone you claimed as a friend? Is there anyone here who has not so abandoned someone who thought you were their friend? Environmentally, sin continues to make us humans enemies of the very world in which we live in. Is there anyone here who has not wasted irreplaceable natural resources or mistreated our surroundings in one way or another? “All creation,” Paul writes elsewhere, “groans under sin’s effects.” Creation—from top to bottom—is “subjected to futility and in bondage to decay (Rom. 8:18-25).” Socially, sin leaves its corrosive effects on the very structures of our society. We see all around us unjust policies and institutional forces that oppress people or at times keep even the most ambitious among the poor and marginalized hopelessly locked into their despair. We watch as untold billions of dollars are spent to kill our so-called enemies, while millions and millions of people in the world—including many right here in the U. S.—don’t even have bread to eat. And try as we might, traces of corporate racism and sexism remain ever present throughout our society. Just check the latest data comparing average salaries for whites and minorities and men and women. Is there anyone here who does not, in one way or another, participate in and even benefit from such a system? And spiritually, sin continues to leave people—young and old alike—desperately separated and running away from God. Disillusioned. Lonely. Unfulfilled. Intoxicated with whatever is dangling from the world’s hand. Feeding the wrong wolves inside of them. Is there anyone here who has never pushed God away? Is there anyone who has never placed their own desires and wishes ahead of God?

The world, the Bible makes clear, is broken. The community around us is broken. I am broken. And so are you. And all of our wrongdoings and malicious thoughts are not mere lapses in judgment or “mistakes,” as we so often like to call them. Like Adam, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. And like Adam, we all are destined to die. Years before Paul penned his letter to the Romans, the prophet Ezekiel announced: “The soul that sins shall surely die.” Paul said the same thing in Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” And while the statistics concerning the Black Plague are alarming—some 75 million perished—the numbers with respect to sin are totally astonishing. At least half of the population of Europe lived through the devastation of the plague! Sin leaves no survivors. Apart from the love and grace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ came into the world to save all of us sinners. Save us from what? From wasting our lives. From forfeiting our inheritance in God’s kingdom. From slavery to our own longings and wishes. From contentment with our old, dirty clothes. From death. Jesus Christ came into the world as the center piece of God’s wonderful plan to fix this broken, sinful world of ours. But before we can put on the garments of God’s love and grace, we must first appreciate just how much we need them.