Easter: “Life for others, Victorious Over the Grave”

This distinguished our understanding of grace in contrast to that of some Christians hung up on guilt and penalties being paid–though I worried about putting other people down, perhaps by way of caricaturing, on a day of Christian unity.  But then I set the stage for the next six weeks of the Easter season, which will develop the theme of “life for others.” 

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

May the Good News of the Risen Christ be proclaimed from my lips and bring joy to all our ears. Amen.

The Christian faith is an Easter faith. Faith begins from and returns always to the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead. (Alleluia! Christ is risen!) We deepen the meaning of that good news when we retrace the steps of Jesus through the way of sorrows that led to the cross. Likewise, we deepen the meaning of the grace we receive from God when we retrace the steps of our wandering through the alienation and sin that would be all we have were it not for the grace of God. But all of this deepening into the sorrows and the alienation is valid only when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the empty tomb, the dawning realization by first the women and then the other disciples that Jesus Christ is alive in God and his word will endure forever.

It’s a simple point: Easter comes before the cross—but understandably, there is still so much confusion and misunderstanding about the odd order our faith takes. We can clarify this odd but true order by contrast with what goes wrong when Christians get the order of things backwards. Some Christians get it in their head that God was so uncontrollably angry with sin that He (I think they would only say He) had to have a sacrifice to appease his wrath. No act of mere human repentance could suffice to appease God, so the one to pay the penalty had to be very valuable indeed—equivalent to God himself. That is, only God’s own son could pay enough to God the Father to mollify God, to settle God down, so that now God could love us again. / Now there may be a grain of truth in all that, but it’s been understood in a rather childish way, as if God is at odds with God’s own being. As if the grace we came to know through Jesus Christ wasn’t who God was from the very beginning, from all eternity. As if God changes in the year AD 30 from being mad to loving, the way a cross lover does when you give him his favorite bourbon and a backrub. (“There, there.”) I don’t think we want to say that God couldn’t be a God of grace until Jesus bore the cross.   That sounds weird. But this view is not as remote as I make it out to be. In our own Red Hymnal, “I will Sing of My Redeemer” has this line: I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me, on the cruel cross he suffered from the curse to set me free.” (God’s curse?) “I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in his boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave.” Ransom? To whom? To God? Was Jesus paying God (off) on our behalf? It’s left vague in the hymn, but you can see how someone would arrive at a conclusion that might create confusion.

Likewise, some Christians (perhaps the same ones) get it in their head that you can’t have faith, you can’t be saved, unless you become convinced that you personally are a miserable sinner. Nothing you do is any good, it all just makes God so wrathful. So first you have to hit rock bottom and confess that you are a no-good sinner, and then God will accept your contrition and show you mercy. (I’m not making this up, so it should sound familiar to some of you.) Now, that’s just wrong on several counts. First of all, it makes God’s mercy the reward for my contrition and humility, as if—once again—God is wrathful and angry until I win God over with all my self-abasement and tears. No: God’s grace comes before my penance parade. And God’s grace works in us before we hit rock bottom. And as real as sin is, we don’t cease being God’s good creation. And those outside of the Christian faith likewise receive grace from God, at least the grace of creation; I don’t think God has nothing for them but wrath and damnation. (Consider the words of Peter that we just heard: “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him.”) I suspect that some Christians like to demand that we feel guilty and shameful because of our sin, before we can experience God’s mercy and love, because they want to control us by manipulating our emotions. You may be surprised to find out that the NT nowhere enjoins Christians to feel guilty. Yet that’s what it’s all about for some. That, and perhaps they want Christians to feel superior to all those non-Christians because we are going to heaven and they are going to the other place—thus they say that God only loves people who confess themselves to be total sinners and rely solely on Jesus Christ.

So away with all that; you won’t hear that stuff from me, or in our liturgy or song. Because the Christian faith is an Easter faith. We only understand the cross and venerate it because we have encountered the risen Christ and know ourselves to belong to him. We only feel sorrow for sin—both our personal sin and that of the whole world—because we first have known and trusted ourselves and the whole world to a God of infinite grace. We do hear God say “no,” but only because we first heard God’s yes to the whole world, and believe that God has never intended and never will let us go, even when we stray. If you flip all that around and reverse the order, you can very easily make the Christian faith into its exact opposite: a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental path of works righteousness.

So let me be very clear, since, because of the backwards theology of some Christians, you might think that the Christian faith is self-righteous, moralistic, and judgmental. This day, Easter Sunday, is the basis and beginning for everything we believe and do. We believe that because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, God has embraced the whole world and everyone in it in Christ, no matter how badly the world rebels against God, even desiring to put God to death. When you put it that way, Easter should make us catch our breath [gasp] at the depth of divine love for the world. And that love of God is not just a warm feeling—the hapless sentiment of an unrequited lover. God’s love comes in full power. The power of God’s love overcomes all the world’s death-dealing power. No stone, however massive, can stand in the way of God’s power of life. This day of the Lord, this Easter Sunday which is not just a day but the eternal foundation of the cosmos, is not about you, and whether you are going to be a bad boy or a good girl. It’s not about us paltry human beings, and about keeping us in line or about getting us to give more money or to have more good deeds to show for ourselves. This day isn’t even about Jesus of Nazareth. This day, and in essence, our Christian faith, sis about God’s power of life and grace and love. Jesus of Nazareth was a righteous man who was unjustly killed. That much of it is a terrible tragedy. But Jesus didn’t resurrect himself. Did you hear Peter say: “God raised him on the third day.” God raised Jesus up; the Spirit and power of God raised Jesus up, demonstrating that truly this was the righteous Son of God who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever. Easter Sunday is all about God, and because of Easter we know that God is our invisible father (or mother), as well as the Son we have come to know in person, and the Holy Spirit who remains with us. Because, we now know and believe in God’s power of life, and we know that Jesus is God’s son who lives forever, we know we can never be separated from him, and that God has the Spirit power to give us life in Christ Jesus. Easter is not about us, but we can now see—and this is the very basis of our faith—what Jesus told Mary: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We can now see—not because of our own efforts and piety; until we see and believe we are at best just like Mary: confused, hapless, and pathetic. But we know by our resurrection faith that we share the same relationship to God that Jesus did and does. /

So hopefully we understand by now something of what Easter faith means and what it doesn’t mean. It means that, whatever our little accomplishments and virtues, or however lacking we are in virtues and accomplishments, God’s love has the power of life. But that doesn’t make this Easter faith any easier or more accessible for some of us, including me. The Christian faith, I have said, begins and returns always to this day that lives forever, this Easter day, and to what God did on this day by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This day is not even about the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I said. But you might very well think to yourself, “It would be easier for me if it was about Jesus of Nazareth. I can appreciate his preaching and good deeds, the love that he showed to all.” (Never mind whether Jesus was really all that loving or whether his love was of a sort very strange to us.) “But I don’t know,” you might continue, “what to make of God raising Jesus from the dead. And then he appears in strange ways—walking through doors and then eating fish with them, as we’ll read about in the coming weeks—and then this raised body ascends, just floats up to heaven, apparently. I’d rather just believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”

As the kids say nowadays, I feel you. Easter faith may indeed be the foundation of Christian faith, but it is a big pill to swallow. It doesn’t make it altogether easier if I reassure you that the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ are clearly intended to be symbolic and mysterious. You’ll still ask me: Isn’t there an easier place to begin?

That’s what I am going to spend the next six Sundays of Easter exploring. Granted that it all goes back to the resurrection of Christ Jesus and proceeds from a confession in him. But what does being a Christian mean and look like for us, apart from getting into the difficult to conceive events of that first Easter morning? I have an answer for you. It’s an easy answer. It’s an answer you can get on board with. It doesn’t require that you explain and affirm what exactly happened with Jesus’ body or any of that, but I think I can eventually bring us back to the events of that Easter morning as recounted by the gospels and show why they still matter. …Ready?

“Life for others.” That’s what being a Christian is all about. That is the shape of life that we pledge ourselves to in this community. “Life for others.” Being a Christian does not primarily mean believing in something, affirming something, especially affirming something even if it flies in the face of science and reason and evidence. Because the most important doctrines or beliefs in Christianity are mysteries—meaning you never fully understand them. Above all, you never understand God, say what you will about God. So these beliefs in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and justification by faith make for a confusing foundation for describing what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, being a Christian is not all in your head; it’s not a mind thing. So instead, let’s say that being a Christian means that life takes on a certain kind of shape for you. And that shape is being for others.

I can easily spend seven weeks teasing out what that means and what that life looks like. But for this week, let’s just put the matter very starkly: would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for me and mine? Or would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for others? Did you ever say to yourself, what if everyone were just nice to one another? That is in essence what I am talking about: being for others. That sounds so simple, and so attractive on a superficial level. There are still many hard questions to ask. If the answer was just, let’s all be nice to one another, then we wouldn’t need God to come down and die on a cross and then the whole resurrection thing. But essential it is simple. And the essence of Easter goes deeper and higher than just: wouldn’t it be good if we all were this and that way? The essence of Easter is this: God is life for others. The risen Christ is life for others, victorious over the grave. That’s why Jesus can say: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” because God is life for others. Those were not the last words of the risen Christ. But before he explains the rest to us, he invites us to partake of this life for others.

 

5th of Lent (April 2): “Loving Loved Ones”

I was gratified by the expressions of appreciation I received for this sermon.  I often find John’s gospel difficult to preach from.  So this time, I came clean and was honest about that fact.  (Almost) Always the right thing to do!  Once I did that, I found that new insights from the text came upon me (from the Holy Spirit, as we believe).  For instance, I didn’t see any insight from the commentary I was using as to why Martha and Mary both say the same thing when they find Jesus.  It sounds stiff and repetitive.  But it came to me that Jesus’ different reactions to the same greeting demonstrate how his demeanor has changed.  

Now, I will not claim that the significance I find there was part of John’s “intentions.”  In some ways, I am imposing meaning that John would perhaps have intended to avoid.  And those with more conservative biblical sensibilities will find my reading a little disturbing.  But this is the confusing but refreshing world of interpreting Scripture seriously but not literally and always deferentially.  (Consider Paul’s baffling, shocking interpretation of Scripture in Galatians!)  I hope all of that does not distract the reader from the point: to focus anew on mending and vivifying our relationships with loved ones. 


Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45

Loving loved ones sounds easy. It’s actually the most difficult and fraught kind of love. It’s usually not too difficult to love a stranger who is in need. I urge you all to practice doing so. It’s both easy and rewarding. And I know that our Board of Missions is looking for opportunities for us to do so, opportunities like Cathedral in the Night, a worship and free meal program for homeless people. It really is easy, and you leave feeling good.

That’s not always how our closest relationships go. Isn’t that surprising? Why would it be harder to love an old friend or family member than a complete stranger? Perhaps because there is so much at stake. Our daily happiness and sense of freedom are bound up thickly with our relationships with parents, children, or spouses. We have so much at stake, personally, in these close relationships. They are part of our past that we can never escape from, and they set the course for our future, as far as we can see. With our past and our future at stake, these relationships threaten to consume us.

A love so essential to who we are can easily feel entrapping, like it is robbing us of our freedom. Perhaps we have all felt that way toward our parents at one time or another. Or we fret about whether the one I love loves me as equally and truly as I love her: perhaps I do not feel as giving as my lover does; or worse, perhaps she doesn’t love me as much as I love her. That’s an anxiety that especially many young lovers have felt. Or what about the heartbreak that clouds the horizon of us parents who experience such an amazing bond of love with a child from the moment of birth. You receive this precious, fragile, cuddly, lovingly dependent life that inspires the noblest feelings of care and nurture in you. Sadly, those precious early years of bonding will be largely forgotten by your child. And so the relationship between parent and child can never be fully mutual. Parents are doomed to watch their children grow more distant, more independent, and subject to all kinds of threats beyond our control, from untrue lovers who will break their hearts, to bad friends who lead them astray—and who knows how our unpredictable economy might fail to bring our children sustenance and opportunity? And then, what if our children do something terribly wrong? / There’s so much at stake. It’s no wonder that parents constantly get it wrong. Out of fear, we are too protective and controlling; our of a desire for mutual love and respect, we are too permissive.

Getting love right, in any of these relationships, seems almost impossible. But perhaps that’s because we have set our minds on the flesh, not on the Spirit. These are the terms Paul uses in our reading, and they are unfriendly terms. They may sound unhelpful. So let me explain them so that they can be helpful. Biblical scholars all agree that for Paul, “Flesh” does not mean the “body,” and “Spirit” does not mean soul or mind. To keep things brief, to set your mind on the flesh is to think only about what I have coming to me; what is mine; what am I going to get out of this? In verse 15 Paul calls this a “spirit of slavery” that makes you “fall back into fear.” When you approach your loved ones with the question: what’s in it for me in this relationship, you will always think first about yourself, and you will live in fear that you will not get what is coming to you. Life and loving relationships for those set on the flesh or on “me” can only bring loss.   “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” If you are all about having and possessing, the one thing you know is that you will inevitably lose it all.

But “To set your mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit is all about giving, not having. For those in the Spirit, life is a gift and a chance to give in return. God’s grace, given freely, stands behind everything. My loving relationships are not a threat to my possessions, but show me the truth that there is no “me.” Who I am from the very beginning is bound up with others—my parents first of all. I will be entrusted with responsibilities, possessions, and decisions, but these are not ultimate. There is not me without others.

If you set your mind on the flesh, then your relationships will present your with two choices: either I am going to get what I want, or I am going to sacrifice myself, and this person I love is going to take all that I have. But if you set your mind on the Spirit, then you live in a “we.” When you give, you give to an “us” that includes you and your lover. And when you receive, you receive as a “we” that rejoices with the lover. There are no losers and winners in the Spirit; if you are thinking about who is winning and who is losing, you are in the flesh.

It’s really pretty simple. And Paul’s believes that God shows us in Jesus that the meaning and destiny of everything is in the Spirit, not in the flesh—with the “we,” not with the “me.” Paul is writing this to the church, whose very identity is founded on Jesus, the one who brought life and peace in the Spirit. Our “we” includes above all Jesus, and through Jesus, God’s own eternal being is part of our “we.” God is our loved one; and we are God’s loved ones. Our “we” is boundless.

So the first thing to do, as we practice repentance in our closest relationships, is to set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. In other words, your relationships are not your possessions to be managed, but they are life itself. They are your “we.” And they will not be all they can be unless you can enter them with the right intention, understanding, and heart.

But fixing our relationships probably isn’t as simple as just “setting you mind.” For one, we remain inevitably prone to selfishness, it seems. We remain at least a little bit in the flesh. After all, Paul had just said in chapter seven, apparently about himself, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” This is the reality we confront during Lent. And so every day, we feel or inflict the pain of life in the flesh on our relationships, because as simple as it sounds, we cannot bring ourselves to live wholly as a “we.”

But besides being inevitably at least a little selfish, we are also fragile, bodily creatures, for thus God created us. We cannot overcome our own vulnerability, and neither can our loved ones. Above all we are mortal. If you were here on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality is what launched this great Lenten journey we are on. Doing so can free us, as it did then, to face our need for repentance and to embrace real life with the time we have. But it also forces us to face the fact that even the “we” that we live, even when we love rightly, for will be taken from us.

That brings us to our reading from the Gospel of John. Now, I will tell you right off that the Gospel of John does not always sit well with me. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, no doubt. But sometimes I find the portrayal of Jesus and others to lack credibility. In today’s reading, as he is bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” That’s lovely. The author of the gospel could have left it at that. But he has Jesus add, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” That’s weird. Jesus has to explain—not to God, surely, so apparently to us the readers—that he only thanked God out loud for the sake of the crowd. I guess that John thinks that if Jesus had to thank God, that suggests that Jesus wasn’t absolutely sure from the start that God would come through. Or maybe Jesus and God are so united that they act as one, so thanks would not be appropriate. But either way, I can’t imagine Jesus actually making this announcement (‘of course, I only said that for the crowds’). And indeed, scholars believe that John’s gospel shows at least a few layers of editing; this odd comment of Jesus could come from the hand of a later editor trying to clarify something about Jesus, but in effect messing up the story a little bit. It bothers me. But this detail in the story need not detain us.

Another detail of the story is more relevant to us today, and it also shows something odd about the way Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel. As I read this story, Jesus is a little bit above the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives a message from his dear friends Mary and Martha, telling him Lazarus, who is also dear to Jesus, is ill. But did you notice this? Jeanie did in Bible Study. Jesus, for no apparent reason, stays where he is for two days, before setting out to the town where Lazarus is. / What becomes clear is that Jesus intentionally waited two days, so that by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Now, what is important about these four days? According to Jewish belief at the time, the soul remains near the body for up to three days after death. It was not unheard of for people of God to bring back to life someone who has recently died. Elijah the prophet does this in 1 Kings chapter 17. Jesus apparently waits for four days so that his raising of Lazarus, even after he had begun to decompose, will stand out as an extraordinary miracle—like the way Jesus gave sight to the man born blind last week, something that was likewise unheard of.

In other words, Jesus is out to make a point. The raising of Lazarus is to be the last and greatest of Jesus’ seven signs, which are never about the deed itself, they are testimony that leads people to find eternal life in Jesus. Jesus indicates as much at the beginning of the story: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so when Jesus meets Martha—who scolds him a little, saying that if Jesus had hurried up he could have saved Lazarus—Jesus tries to direct her beyond Lazarus’ dying and rising toward himself as the true life. She confesses, like many Jews at that time, that Lazarus will be raised from the dead at the end of time; this was thought to take place when the Messiah eventually comes and ends the world as we know it. Jesus corrects her a bit: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” His point is surely not far from what Paul was saying: to live according to the flesh is to die; to live according to the Spirit is to truly live. And then Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?” Jesus is trying to raise Martha’s sights beyond just the life of her dear brother Lazarus, a life and love that will remain fragile and mortal; Lazarus will die again. But to believe in Jesus is to transcend death, although I confess it’s not crystal clear what Jesus means when he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus talks about “eternal life” in John’s gospel, it seems he is not only talking about a life after our death, but something we enjoy here and now. We have eternal life when we live in the presence of Jesus, for God’s eternal being is in this one. He is what allows our “we,” the spirit by which we connect our lives with others, to include not only mortal loved ones, but God’s own being which is eternal. And that is the Spirit that really gives us life and keeps us from falling back into fear, making us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, as Paul says.

Living out of God’s eternal being, in other words, might prevent us from getting too attached to our Lazaruses, our loved ones. It is possible that the problem in our closest relationships is not just ego, or selfishness—the “flesh.” It’s not always that we haven’t loved enough. The problem can also be that we love too much. There is too much at stake; this one person means too much to me. It is a troubling possibility. You know I never would have predicted this, but there is no question in my mind that if I was ever faced with the choice of giving my life for Silas’—it’s unrealistic, but perhaps for a medical reason, I wouldn’t hesitate one second—the easiest hard decision I would ever have to make. Surely there’s something divine in that, the willingness to give up one’s life. There’s probably also a lot of evolutionary biology in it—our innate drive to reproduce. (And ask me again when he’s a teenager. We’ll see what the score is then.) We are not helplessly egocentric, as the cynics like to claim; we are capable of intense, selfless love, at least for our own. That same intensity of love can utterly break our hearts—that’s what is frightening. But while our human love bears an analogy to the love of God, it is not the same. The New Testament understands Jesus to have given his life for all, not just for his own. So I think Jesus in this story is showing a certain detachment from his love for Lazarus and his sisters, for the eternal life and love of God cannot be completely spent just on one’s family and friends. It expands beyond this, even to our enemies, to the ones we consider sinners, which I suppose is what we all were to God. And so in this spirit of detachment, Jesus is trying to lift up Martha’s vision beyond her grief for Lazarus. This is wise, for we must love our dearest ones without thinking that all of life depends on them, lest our grief break us. Only on God can we say that all of life depends.

Yet what is so touching about this story is to see Jesus also share in the fragility of grief. His character’s confident detachment holds sway, until Martha’s sister Mary comes out to see him. I think Jesus was closest with Mary; it is Mary who anoints his feet with her hair. And when he sees this dear friend weeping over the death of her brother, and hears her disappointment that he did not arrive in time, and when he sees the crowd who came to pay their respects moved to tears by Mary’s weeping, Jesus’ confident detachment, with its sights set high on God’s eternal glory, fails him. We are told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” It is as if Mary and even the crowd of strangers who were so powerfully affected by her, remind him—or remind us the readers—of his humanity, for Jesus is fully human. He breaks down and weeps. He does this in front of the crowd of “Jews”—a problematic term we talked about last week—this crowd who are generally depicted by John as not to be trusted. “The Jews” are often Jesus’ skeptics and enemies in this gospel. But here is a rare moment when he is vulnerable in front of them, and they are moved by his love. Jesus is changed by all of this particular human attachment, that of both Mary and the Jews. The change is marked by the fact that, even though Mary greets Jesus in exactly the same way as Martha did, Jesus does not insist on correcting her and raising her sights beyond Lazarus. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” and gets on with it. /

We are called to love everyone, as God has loved all. We are not to restrict our love just for those who love us: our children, parents, lovers, spouses, friends. There is a time and place to detach from our loved ones and to say, as Jesus elsewhere says, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’”  But even Jesus could not help but be moved by his love for his dearest friends. Let us not imagine that we must forsake our dearest ones, but let us love them truly in the Spirit. Your Lenten discipline card offers some guidance to doing that this week.

First in Advent (3/5): “Unplug for the Free Gift”

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ; Romans 5:12-19

We had a good crowd on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent–literally! And thanks to our children for marking the bulletins with ashes from our Ash Wednesday service. In that service, everyone present received a dried palm leaf from last year’s Palm Sunday. We all meditated on that palm leaf, and mentally inscribed something we want to lay down during Lent—whether it is a practice or habit or wound that we want to be healed. We collected the leaves, burned them, and crushed them together. So we are all sharing in each other’s repentance. That last part—the sharing of all our repentance in one mass of ashes—was for me crucial to the whole thing.

Lent involves a turning inward, as I said last week. From Christmas to Easter, our attention is focused on the story of Jesus and how his story defines our story. But halfway between Christmas and Easter, we turn inward to examine ourselves. That is critical: at some point, we need to deal with our own concrete story and reality and seek to draw closer to God. But how do we do this? Do we just start talking about ourselves? That won’t necessarily prompt us to repent. We might think that our story is not all so bad, that we’ve done some good things and maybe some not so good, but all in all we don’t have much to repent for. Without the richness of the biblical stories, without all those stories about human beings trying to obey the infinitely righteous God, I’d probably think that I’m a mostly decent guy. I’m not a criminal. I’m not sponging off anybody.

And that’s fair enough. Evangelical Christians sometimes talk as if everyone who is not a born again Christian must be really sinful, even if that murky, sinful self is well concealed in one’s secret heart. That, however, is not my experience of myself, nor of my friends who live very good lives without religious faith, thank you very much.

Something else is going on in the biblical story, that I fear our evangelical cousins don’t get. I don’t think the Bible is actually teaching that all non-believers are vile sinners. Notice a sentence from the Romans reading. Paul first says, “Death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned, [sin doesn’t count], where there is no Law. 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.”

Now, there is a lot going on in this passage—so much that I would love to try to explain, and some things I’m not sure I would want to agree with. But briefly, when Paul says that “sin is not reckoned where there is no Law,” I think he means this: people generally do a mix of good and bad things. But God through Moses presented the Law to the people of Israel, and the Law means that now we measure ourselves against a standard of absolute purity and perfection, namely, God, which before we never had to worry about. If you and I were to compare our actions, we’d probably look roughly equal (except when we see the speck in our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own). But seen next to God’s holy and all-seeing perfection, before whom every shadow of our secret intentions and every deed left undone become apparent, our goodness seems to melt away. Indeed, we might seem to really deserve death, which is what I think Paul means. That’s often the reaction of Old Testament figures who came face to face with God, like Isaiah or Jacob—they wanted to die.

So, one lesson to draw from all this is that people who do not believe in God don’t have to worry about measuring themselves against this absolute standard of God’s righteous purity. I don’t blame them for seeing themselves as a mix of good and bad, but certainly not sinners. Because, as Paul says, “Sin is not reckoned [present tense, so still today] when there is no law.” Those who do not measure themselves against God’s holiness should not properly be counted sinners.

Yet if anyone were to compare himself to God’s holy standard, that person would see himself or herself as a sinner. So “all have sinned,” as Paul says, but only those who know God’s law would recognize it as sin. Paul says that sin and death exercised dominion over all, “even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” Meaning, not everyone deliberately disobeys God as Adam supposedly did. Yet all are sinners. When you compare even sins that aren’t deliberate against God’s absolute standard of perfection, they measure up as sin nonetheless. Take any amount and compare it to infinity, and all those amounts will look equally far infinity. So, as long as we imagine God as the Law Giver who demands absolute perfection, we see ourselves as deserving death—or at least, deserving no reward and nothing of lasting and eternal worth. And Paul thinks that the Law takes us only this far—to a God demanding perfection. Now, I don’t think Paul means that everyone in the Old Testament cowered before God’s righteous perfection. Obviously, Abraham did not. So I think he’s talking about a way that any believer of God can misinterpret the Law to demand perfect fulfillment. And even more confusingly, Paul doesn’t mean that this misinterpretation of the Law is completely wrong. God is perfect and holy, and we cannot simply ignore this fact.

But Paul adds, “Adam…is a type of the one who was to come.” Adam—the word means “a human being” in Hebrew—is for Paul a symbol of all humanity found wanting when measured by God’s perfection. That symbol of Adam is a type of Jesus Christ. That is, Adam, or fallen humanity, only makes sense as the anti-type, the opposite of Christ, who represents for Paul the “free gift” of God’s grace. And the symbolic Adam and Christ are not balanced and equal: Christ outweighs Adam, overwhelms Adam, so that God’s righteous judgment can only be seen as secondary and inferior to God’s grace. So while Adam symbolizes all humanity judged and found sinners, Jesus Christ (whatever he was historically) symbolizes all humanity embraced by God with love and accepted as righteous and just. Jesus Christ was faithful and obedient even to death on behalf of us all; thus it is that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” This in essence is what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus God embraces all humanity, even the whole cosmos, in love. Christ overwhelms Adam, supersedes Adam: “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.”

So, let’s sum up thus far. We who believe in God through Jesus Christ understand ourselves primarily as members of the whole humanity which has been received as just and loveable to God by virtue of the graced life of Jesus Christ. But it is still true, even if not as true, that if we consider our own life and goodness, we are also members of the humanity of Adam, the humanity that in every way and universally lives and dies in imperfection or sin, which sometimes looks very mild, and sometimes looks Satanic in its degree of evil. But considered as a type of Christ, considered as the opposite of Jesus, we are all in the same boat of fallen humanity. Now we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to see themselves or us in terms of this graced but fallen humanity. And we may not always have to see ourselves and others that way; a courtroom judge, while sitting on the bench, has little choice but to find some guilty and some innocent. But the story of Jesus and Adam is the primary story of our humanity.

It is this story that enables us to love ourselves and one another, and even or especially our enemy—to live fundamentally directed by love, even while we take very seriously how all humanity is in solidarity in falling short of God’s perfection. We and the world are seriously screwed up. Some just go along, others deliberately and knowingly reject the good out of a grandiose desire to be God, as Paul says, “like the transgression of Adam.” Wherever we are on this spectrum, this is our humanity. We are all Adam, something you and I accept because we are all, even more truly, Jesus Christ.

But that is not the story that we hear every day. Every day we are bombarded with a whole bunch of non-Christian or anti-Christian stories. They never come out and say: “The following program will present you with an anti-Christian story. Christians may want to consider reading the Bible instead.” And these stories aren’t all bad. Some non-Christian stories are incredibly illuminating, fun, and true. Life is so rich; let’s not expect the Gospel story to exhaust the richness of human experience. And we shouldn’t blame non-Christians for sharing with us their sometimes wonderful and sometimes pathetically empty stories. We and not they have been called to make this gospel story into not our only source of truth, but the very heart of what is true for us.

But all these other stories do get in the way of our gospel story. Most of them do not try to supplant the gospel. But they in effect crowd out the gospel story, especially because they come with the backing of very powerful institutions: our whole capitalist free market, our whole media apparatus, and our whole institution of government—and more besides. There is much diversity and nuance among the stories of these and other institutions, but I think we can posit a common factor among them all: they all tell us that we are free, we are in charge; and all the stuff being offered to us by the salespeople, the talking heads, and our governing representatives is just here for us to use for our benefit. They like to assure us: “It’s all about you.” / You’ll never hear me say from this pulpit, “It’s all about you.” Never: “I’m just here to give you want you want.” Never: “I’m just doing what the people want me to do.” Only in this church will you hear: “It’s all about God.” And because God has embraced humanity in Jesus Christ, it’s all about you too, but it’s also about everyone else—all of us in a solidarity of grace amid sin: “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.”

And anything, however innocently, that crowds out this story for us is diabolical. It is the Tempter. And their stories amount to a lie, whatever their truth is. We are not free as they assure us that we are. We are not really in charge. Isn’t that what the serpent said to Eve? He asks her, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” He empowers Eve to think of herself as in charge, as free. So she starts speaking for God, and you’ll notice that she changes what God said a bit. Soon the serpent has the human beings (that’s us) really taking charge, willfully making themselves judges of the good and evil of all things. And that’s how we get the whole matter of the Law that we talked about above: we take upon ourselves to see things as absolutely good or evil, something only God can do, something God has always only been able to do by the union of grace and justice in Jesus Christ, eternally begotten from the bosom of God.

The serpent is a dealer. He makes us a deal we cannot resist. If you’ll just take charge enough to do something that will really put you in charge, you will be like a little god. And then the world will revolve around you. The free market serpent tells us, You can shop until you drop, searching for ultimate fulfillment in that elusive perfect purchase. The media serpent tells us, You can choose whatever you want to be true, and we’ll bend and accommodate what is true to suit your fancy. And the government serpent says, Don’t worry about what is good for all, or good for the least of these; you just tell us what is good for you and we’ll make it happen. These systems do some good; they work up to a point. They will never bring us the Kingdom of God. More likely, when you make a deal with the devil, and maybe “if you fall down and worship” Satan, you will be promised “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” but in the end you, a little god at the center of the world, will die in your sins.   This is not real freedom. Indeed, the story of temptation—Adam’s or ours or Jesus’—is not about how we are going to use our freedom. It is all based on a false image of what freedom is—me being in charge in God’s place, which is exactly what Jesus refuses in Satan’s temptations.

Take a look at the card in your bulletin entitled, “Lenten Disciplines: Unplug for the Free Gift.” Please put it in your purse or pocket to take it home. I won’t know who throws theirs in the recycling bin on the way out the door, but I’ll be a little annoyed when I find a bunch of them in their. These cards, one each week, are for you to take on some disciplines or practices of repentance for Lent. This first one has the broadest scope of all: I want you to experience unplugging from your dependency—your so-called freedom—in relation to the whole conglomerate of consumerism, media, and government—which after all, have gradually come to resemble each other more and more. We are never going to be free from this dependency; we can go off-grid, but that’s probably a luxury for the few. But we can take half an hour, or maybe a 10 minutes a day, temporarily finding a space free from the commercial-media-government conglomerate. And not just to claim our own personal off-grid freedom, which is not the freedom of the gospel anyway, a freedom denying our solidarity with Adam and Christ. But to take measure of how dependent we are, how mired in the serpent’s deals.

I first suggest ways to break away from our bound condition, so you can get some perspective on how bound we are over the course of a typical day. Then I invite you to contemplate nature, which gives without making a deal with us to put us at the center of the universe.

Before our unfortunate trespass into taking upon ourselves the judgment of all things according to good and evil—which, despite some of its dreadful effects, is what makes us human, makes us Adam—God put us in the garden to “till and keep it.” God didn’t even ask us, to begin with, to worship him. It’s a humble but beautiful vocation, as anyone who has ever tended a garden or taken care of animals can attest. And so, finally, I ask you on the card to think of three ways you can till and keep the world around you. Think about and plan to do those things during these 40 days, and beyond. Pray for God’s help in this. God alone, illuminating you by the gospel story, will make you no empty promises of god-like freedom, but will lead you into the way of life of the free gift, the only gift great enough for the whole human race to share in.