Only recently in the classroom I was talking about Lent. One girl responded with a totally blank look.
“Well” I said, “Some people choose to give up things like crisps or biscuits, cake or chocolate.”
“Oh” she said, with the dawning of understanding on her face, “It’s a weight-loss programme is it?”
One could be forgiven for thinking that we have trivialised Lent: you know, making small sacrifices which mean nothing. You want to know about fasting, ask your Muslim friends. They understand fasting and who knows, perhaps Lent was once far more like Ramadan. If giving something up is the major symbol of those things which distract people from God, we might well ask what those distractions are today: food? Possibly; time? technology? consumerism? How can we adopt an approach to those things which cloud our relationship with God? Perhaps less giving up and more taking on would help: a greater commitment to recycling, eating locally produced foods, leaving a smaller carbon footprint upon the planet... So many challenges, choosing one could be life-giving in so many unexpected ways.
Anyway, rant over …. and on to today’s theme: As you know, the gospels are essentially four biographies, composed of teachings, miracles, parables, and narratives about Jesus of Nazareth woven together so effectively to make a story.
After John, comes Acts. Luke’s Acts is essentially a history book of the life of the early church. Again, the history of the early church is an accumulation of stories, especially stories about the Apostle Paul.
Now, the book of Romans, which comes next, is not a history book like the Gospels and Acts. In fact, in the book of Romans, there are no historical facts or anecdotes about Jesus or St. Paul. In the book of Romans there are no parables and no miracles. Unlike the gospels and the book of Acts, even unlike Paul’s other letters, the book of Romans is almost all Christian theology and doctrine.
The Apostle Paul is credited with helping Christianity to become a world religion. Even though he was a Jew by birth and a Pharisee by training he was also a Roman citizen. He could not conceive of Christ as a gift for a small sect from a tribal God. To Paul the incarnation was God's gift to humanity, not to Judaism only.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read this chapter from Romans, but there’s a lot about it I don’t know. But one thing I do know - it’s about sin.
This passage from Romans reminds me of an old T.V. sketch when everyone went to church to hear the new curate. A husband and wife are sat together and she has to keep nudging him to keep him from snoring through the sermon. On the way out of the church the husband was enthusiastic about the sermon. “Curate that was the best sermon I’ve heard for a long time!” His wife just rolls her eyes, pulls him aside and says to him, “You didn’t hear a word of that sermon.” He, of course, protests, and she, frustrated, asks, “What was it about then?” He shifts his weight from foot to foot for a while and replies, “It was about sin.” Not at all satisfied she perseveres: “Well what did he say about sin?”
“He was against it.”
So in this text St. Paul argues that just as sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, now through another man, Christ, God was giving us the gift of freedom from sin and from the negative impact of the Law of Moses. Humanity now is invited into a new relationship with God through Christ, one based on God's action for us rather than our achievements through obedience to a set of rules.
The point of the Adam/Christ comparison is to emphasize that the human project begun in Genesis, the key part of the creator’s project for the whole creation, has been put back on track. It is enough to know here that sin involves disobedience, failure of loyalty, a fracturing of the creator’s intention, which, because it is a turning away from the source of life, can only bring death.
Now Jesus did not start where Adam started; he began where Adam ended up. The ‘obedience’ of Jesus is now the firm platform on which we as Christ’s latter day disciples now stand: Justified by our faith in God’s saving plan as accomplished through Jesus death on our behalves.
And this is where today’s Gospel story from Matthew comes in. This isn’t a story where we’re supposed to focus on what the devil might have looked like or what it might have been like for Jesus to find himself on the pinnacle of the temple. That’s not the point of this passage. This is about relationship. It’s about connection. Matthew’s point in describing the temptations was to connect Jesus to the ongoing story of salvation begun in the Old Testament. In the temptations Jesus continues to model how we humans should behave. We learn from examining this time in Jesus’ life because we can connect it to those times in our own lives where we struggle with our relationships with God and with each other. We can be supported in that struggle by this account. It helps us put things in perspective. It helps us remember that, when we might be tempted to put something in our lives before faithfulness to God, Jesus has been there before us and that his faithfulness to God is our model for coping with temptation today.
So this morning, we continue with the theological truths about Jesus. Not the histories of Jesus as in the gospels, nor the history of the early church as in Acts. We focus on one primary theological notion today. Paul says, from one man, Adam, sin spread throughout the whole world. Watch: I take one drop of food colouring and put it into a glass of water and that one drop of food colouring spreads out through it all. You can literally see it spread. So also, from Adam, the first man, sin began and has spread throughout the whole human race. Paul then says, even stronger than Adam is the one man Jesus Christ and his grace has spread throughout the whole world. And importantly, the power of grace is much stronger than the power of sin. The power of Christ is stronger than the power of Adam.
For Paul, Adam represented all unredeemed humanity. Whether or not Paul actually believed that Adam was the first human being or symbolically a template for everyman isn’t important, what is, is the concept of human solidarity and the corporate personality which lies behind his attempt to explain both sin and salvation.
This passage is difficult to read so let’s listen to William Barclay, the twentieth century Scottish theologian: "There is no passage in the New Testament which has had such an influence on theology as this passage; and there is no passage which is more difficult for a modern mind to understand. By the sin of Adam all men became sinners and were alienated from God; by the righteousness of Jesus Christ all men are now considered as righteous and are restored to a right relationship with God.... Whatever else we may say about Paul's argument this we can say - it is completely true that man was ruined by sin and rescued by Christ."
And this same book Of Romans, let us remember, with St. Paul’s thoughts on sin and grace would later be the inspiration for Martin Luther as he reinterpreted Catholic thinking on the matter and changed the religious face of Europe.
I have a difficulty with this theme: I need to visualize death or evil. I need to be able to use analogy to illustrate when death or evil starts at one point and then spreads otherwise it’s just words.
Let’s consider chicken pox. A child comes to school and he has the chicken pox. No other child in the class has chicken pox. The infected child touches everybody, breathes on everybody, sits by everybody, and next week, nearly everybody in the class has chicken pox. You could trace the chicken pox in the classroom back to the one child who infected all his friends. Chicken pox begins with one and spreads to almost everybody. That is juts the way chicken pox is. This also works for nits.
It is with images like this that we begin to understand the thoughts of St. Paul. He thought about sin which started with one man, Adam and spread so that it infected the whole human race. He understood that the nature of sin is copy cat, is imitative, is suggestive and it spreads throughout the whole human race, not because of genes and chromosomes but because of the nature of inter-relatedness of human beings and the nature of sin itself.
But, that is not the point. The point is how much greater is the power of God, how much greater is the power of God’s righteousness, how much greater is the power of God’s grace.
So now I am wondering how we can visualize taking one drop of goodness and seeing it spread like with the food dye and the glass of water? How do you take the Presence of Christ, and drop it into the whole world so that it spreads? How does God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness, God’s goodness spread throughout the whole world? God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness, God’s goodness is not spread genetically or chromosomally, but it is spread through our inter-relatedness, our inter-connectedness, our lives inter-woven together. How do we visualize this?
All you gardeners understand plants that spread e.g. the ivy on our hillsides or banks of flowers. My wife planted the raised bed in our garden a couple of years ago, and in the good weather it is lush and full as the plants have spread. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of life, is like that. In the kingdom of life, goodness and beauty spreads.
So what does this mean for our daily lives? It means that we have the power through the Holy Spirit to spread the message of Christ like the food colouring in the glass. We spread the love of God, the forgiving power of God and the grace of God through the lives that we lead and in relationship with other people. We are the living witness to the saving power of Christ. Call it evangelism, call it witness, either way it is our responsibility to do it in word, in deed, through the lives we lead and in relationship to those the Holy Spirit puts in our paths. Unfashionable as this may sound to modern ears, we are also looking here at the wrath of God. If we truly believe in the saving power of Christ, what are we doing about those who have not accepted that message? Evangelism seems deeply unfashionable today in the touchy-feely post modern Christian world we inhabit where God is all love and compassion. Make no mistake, God is also Judge. Sin is sin and it has consequences.
The message of the gospel is reflected here in Romans: the power of grace is so much stronger than the power of sin. And if the power of grace is so much more powerful than the power of sin, are we sharing that with those around us or do we just assume that it happens? Amen