Proper 7A

June 16, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 10:24-39

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 21:8-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 6:1b-11

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                In this passage Paul deals with a kind of abuse we don’t read much about in the popular press.  In his book, What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey calls it “grace abuse.”  Paul has ended chapter 5 with these soaring words, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more….”  Now he imagines someone saying, “Well, let’s just sin all the more, so that grace may increase all the more.”  That kind of thinking is “grace abuse.”

                It’s easy to follow the argument behind grace abuse, isn’t it?  If our salvation is based completely on what Christ has done for us, not on what we do for God, then we can do anything we want, can’t we?  If, as Yancey says, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less,” then why should we try to do good?  If, indeed, grace actually abounds where sin increases, why shouldn’t we sin?

                Any veteran pastor and every self aware Christian knows that this is not a theoretical question.  The world is full of people who take the Gospel of grace as a license to sin.  In one of his poems, W.H. Auden writes that every criminal who hears the gospel will say, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them.  Really the world is admirably arranged.”  I recently read a true story about a convict on a maximum security island off the coast of Australia who murdered a fellow prisoner.  When hauled into court and asked why he did it, he said he was sick of life on the island and saw no reason to keep on living. “I can understand that,” said the judge, “but why didn’t you just drown yourself in the ocean?  Why murder?”  “Well, I figure it this way,” replied the prisoner.  “I’m a Catholic.  If I committed suicide, I’d go straight to hell.  But if I murder, I can come back here, confess to a priest, and that way God will forgive me before I’m executed.”

    We may shake our heads at such blatant grace abuse, but how many sincere Christians have deliberately committed a sin, knowing that it would be forgiven afterward?  In fact, I wonder if grace abuse doesn’t help explain why evangelical Christians are so much like the world.  Recent polls have discovered that people who take the Bible literally and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord have virtually the same lifestyles as non-Christians—the same levels of alcoholism, divorce, addiction to pornography, pre-marital sex, etc.  Maybe grace abuse explains that.

    This very real problem has led some Christians to lay down the law again, to become latter-day Pharisees.   “Yes, you have to believe, but you have to keep the law, too.”  It’s an attractive option to serious Christians who are disgusted by the lawlessness of our day, but it’s not where Paul takes us in Romans.  A more Reformed approach to grace abuse emphasizes that we ought to be good out of gratitude for the free gift of salvation and out of love for the Giver of that gift.  But that’s not where our text takes us either.

    Romans 6 goes deeper than reasons to be good, deeper than psychological motivations, to the very depths of our being, to who we are.  Or more accurately, Paul takes us to the depths of what we have become because of what happened to us in Christ.  Verse 2 answers the grace abuse question with this bombshell.  “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”

    Over and over Paul hammers that point home.   If you are a Christian, you have died to sin and you can’t live in it any longer.  He is thinking here of sin as a realm or sphere in which we once lived.  Think of those biospheres in which scientists live for years at a time.  Our whole existence was dominated by the power of sin.  It was the absolute master of mind, soul, and body.  But no more.  Now we live in a different sphere—the sphere of grace.  Now grace is the controlling power in our lives, the thing that dominates our existence.  We live under the control of God in Christ through his Holy Spirit.  We have died to sin and we live to God in Christ.

    Now, a common sense response to this teaching is, “I know the Bible says it.  But I don’t remember it.  When did that happen?  How did it happen?”  Paul says it happened when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave.  Verse 5 says, “we have been united with Jesus in his death and resurrection…. For we know (verse 6) that our old self was crucified with him….”  Here’s a part of the Gospel with which many Christians aren’t familiar.  We know very well that Jesus died and rose for us, but we’re mystified by the idea that we also died and rose with him.  When he died and rose, all of us believers also died and rose spiritually.  We died to sin and rose to life in God.  Paul says that is a fact of life, as much a part of the story of our lives as our birth, our family, our entrance into puberty, our first kiss, our marriage, menopause, and death.  It’s just that we haven’t experienced that death and resurrection with Christ in the same way as we’ve experienced those other parts of life.

    But you have experienced it, asserts Paul, in your baptism.  “Or don’t you know,” says verse 3, “that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God the Father, we too may live a new life.”

    Of course, in those days of the early church, most of the people to whom Paul was writing were converts, and thus were baptized as adults.  So for them baptism was an experience that lived in their memory.  It’s not that way for many of us who were baptized as babies.  (I can hear my Baptist friends crowing at this point, “That’s why we shouldn’t baptize infants!”)  Paul’s argument loses a little of its emotional force for paedo-baptists, but not its truth.  Baptism is a symbol, a sign and seal of dying and rising with Christ, a real life experience of that long ago, real life event of dying and rising with Christ.

    Here’s the Bible’s deepest answer to our question.  Why shouldn’t we sin?  Because we have died to sin and have risen to new life in Christ!  As Paul puts it in verses 6 and 7, the domination of sin over our body is done, our slavery to sin has been broken, and we are now freed from sin’s life-destroying power.  It is still in us, but we are not in it as the sphere that dominates our lives.  That is a fact of your life if you are a believer in Christ.

    The problem is that it just doesn’t seem that way to us.  It doesn’t feel that way.  Sin is all too active in us.  And God, even Christ, seems far away in moments of temptation.  That’s why Paul says in verse 11, we have to “count ourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ.”  That’s the thing many of us are missing—“count yourselves dead to sin….”  The word “count” is the word from which our word “logic” is taken.  We have to be logical about this business; we have to think clearly about the facts of our lives; we have to keep reminding ourselves of this fact of life—I am dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.

    This is not make believe, anymore than the rest of the story of Jesus and his love is make believe.  We’re not talking about inventing reality with our faith.  We’re talking about acknowledging by faith what is already reality.  Faith doesn’t make it true.  But faith does make the truth operative in our lives, powerful and effective in our battle with sin.

    Or to put it differently, we have to make sure that these facts of life are a conscious part of the story of our lives, the story we tell ourselves about who we are.  We all have a story by which we identify ourselves.  The story you tell yourself about who you are and what life is about will virtually determine how you live.  The story has many chapters and multiple details.  “I am a 67 year old Dutch American who was raised in Denver.  I have a lovely wife and two great sons and 5 precious grandchildren.  I was a good athlete and I am an avid but decidedly average golfer.  I am a retired pastor who happily served 4 fine churches.”  Those are some of the details of my life story.

    To be a sane and happy human being, we have to fit all the details of our little story into a larger story that gives coherence to the whole thing.  One very popular such story is what atheistic scientist, Edmund Wilson, calls the “evolutionary epic,” which he predicts will one day replace the biblical mythology as our religious narrative.  Another scientist, Carl Becker, tells that story with devastating force.  “You are little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn….”  What a difference that story has made in the lives of millions.  As another scientist puts it: “You are a cosmic accident.  You are no different than the animals.  All morality is arbitrary.  You must look down, not up, in order to understand yourself.”

    Contrast the Christian story.  “You must look up in order to understand yourself.  You are a special creation of God, made in his image.  You are on this earth to exercise dominion in God’s name.  You are a sinner for whom the very Son of God shed his blood to redeem you from the forces that would otherwise ruin your life.”  Now here in Romans 6 Paul reminds us of a part of that story that is crucial in our battle with sin.  It’s a part of the story that Reformed folks like me need to hear over and over, because historically we have told ourselves only part of the story.  We have said to ourselves over and over again, “I am totally depraved.  I am nothing but a dirty, rotten sinner.”   If that’s all you tell yourself about yourself, even minor progress in the battle with sin is nearly impossible.

    We need to tell ourselves this part of the story even more.  “By faith I am united with Christ, so that when Jesus died and rose, so did I.  Now I am dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.” That is a fact of our lives as believers.  But that fact doesn’t become powerful in our day to day living, until we make it part of the story we tell ourselves as we face life’s choices.  Why not sin?  Paul gives us not a reason, but a reality; not fear, not guilt, not even gratitude and love, first of all. Not reasons, but reality. “I have died to sin and I am alive to God in Christ.”  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    Illustration Idea

    A classic story that provides a literary entre into this text is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.   Dr. Jekyll, a mild mannered man of science, increasingly feels that he is a strange mixture of good and evil.  He tries to do good things, but he cannot follow through on them.  So he comes up with a magic potion that can separate his two natures, hoping that his good self that comes out during the day will be able to achieve his good goals in life.  At night he becomes Mr. Hyde, a mysterious, secretive, violent man, who thinks only of his own desires.  He will kill anyone who gets in the way of what he wants.  He is called Hyde not only because he is hideous, but more because he is hidden.  Stevenson was saying that even the best people hide from themselves what is within—an ugly monster called “me,” an enormous capacity for egotism, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement.

    Once Jekyll realizes his own evil, he decides to clamp down on his Mr. Hyde.  He resolves not to take the potion anymore and devotes himself to a life of good works.  He succeeds to a large degree. However, one day Jekyll is sitting on a bench, thinking about all the good he has been doing and how much better a man he now is than the great majority of people.  “But as I smiled, comparing myself with other men…, at that very moment of vain-glorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and a most dreadful shuddering…. I looked down.  I was once more Edward Hyde.”  He became Hyde involuntarily without the potion, and that was the beginning of the end.  In despair of ever changing himself permanently and deeply, Dr. Jekyll kills himself because Mr. Hyde had become too strong.

    Stevenson was wrestling with a problem we all have, because all of us are Jekyll and Hyde.  Or as Paul puts it in reverse, we all have an old self, a Mr. or Ms. Hyde, and a new self, a Dr. Jekyll.  And one of the great issues of life is how we can change permanently and deeply, so that we’re Jekyll, or rather Jesus all the time.  Will it take medication, some pharmaceutically developed potion, or moral effort, some earnest attempt at being good, or today’s self improvement tool of choice, meditation?  What will it take for us to change into the likeness of Jesus Christ?

    Paul’s answer?  Jesus and our union with him.