Friday, September 26, 2008

“No Going Back”

Rom. 6:12-23[1]

If you’ve lived in a relationship with another human being for any length of time, you probably agree that we really do seem to be attracted to someone who is so different in his or her way of thinking as to seem to come from a different planet! You can probably tell some personal stories that illustrate just how true that is! If we could ever learn to understand each other, think of all the misunderstandings and hurt feelings and frustrations we would avoid!

Nick Marshall is a man who has the chance to do just that in the 2000 film What Women Want.[2] He is the ultimate macho man, the consummate male chauvinist who uses one woman after another for what he can get from them. That all changes after an unbelievable chain of events ends in a truly freak accident. The result is that Nick now has the ability to “hear” what the women around him are thinking. At first Nick is terrified by what has happened to him. But when he realizes that he can use his new-found “talent” to get what he wants out of the women around him, he wastes no time taking every advantage he possibly can! The particular target of his attention is Darcy Macguire, the woman who was hired for the job he thought he deserved. Nick uses his “mind-reading” abilities to undermine her so thoroughly that she quickly loses the job.

But something unexpected happens to him in the process—his experience changes him. Slowly, Nick begins to notice Erin, the office errand-girl who he passed over for a promotion. He pays more attention to his own daughter. He also finds himself falling for Darcy, which of course creates a conflict for him. While the story line itself takes some twists and turns that don’t work very well, the change in Nick is believable. Though he eventually “loses” his ability to hear women’s thoughts, he doesn’t forget how wonderfully complex women can be. In fact, he seems to have crossed a line at some point from simply using women to actually respecting and even admiring women. And there’s no going back for Nick Marshall.

I think that’s a little like the change the Apostle Paul has in mind when he says, “Sin must not be your master; for you do not live under law but under God’s grace” (Rom. 6:14, TEV). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have all crossed a line—from sin, slavery, shame, and death to righteousness, freedom, and life! And the truth of the matter is that anyone who has crossed this line can never go back. Truly at that point “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

I think what Paul has in mind is that when we encounter God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, and the new life offered by our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, we are changed in such a thorough way that there is no way we can ever go back to living the life that is marked by death.[3] When we take the step of faith, we encounter the power of Jesus’ destruction of death on the cross and his resurrection to new life that makes everything and everyone new, and that constitutes a “step over the threshold” from death to life.[4] It changes everything to such an extent that there is no going back for those of us who have experienced it.

I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God” (Rom. 6:14, MSG). He continues, “All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!” (Rom. 6:17-18 MSG).

That’s when we discover that “our true freedom” is fulfilled through giving ourselves to others in love.[5] When we truly grasp that, as Karl Barth say, God’s whole being toward us is one great “unequivocal Yes,” we discover the freedom to do as the prodigal did—to arise and return to the one who loves us.[6] That means that we can never live in a way that diminishes and demeans others; we can never take advantage of another human being just to get what we want; we can never see even God’s creation as a “thing” to be used by us as we please; we cannot continue to approve of the violence and greed and selfishness and avarice that define our society. The reason for this is that the wonderful Good News of God’s grace and love carries with it a summons, a call, a claim on our lives that we should no longer live for our own selfish ends but to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/29/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] I want to acknowledge at the outset that the film is more about the humor of the way men simply don’t get women than “what women want.” As many top movie critics observe, the female roles in the film are incredibly shallow. See for example, Elvis Mitchell, “‘What Women Want’: Is There Any Hope for a Dyslexic Mind-Reader?” New York Times (Dec. 15, 2000); accessed at http://www.nytimes .com/2000/12/15/arts /15WHAT.html?ex=1214798400&en=3792d0e30109a3b2&ei=5070 .

[3] Karl Barth calls this “conversion” experience “The Moment”; see The Epistle to the Romans, 109-112, 165-66, 201-2, 216, 237.

[4] Barth, Romans, 201, 207, 211, 215, 218-20, 225-26, 233-34, 238; see also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.2:187

[5] John Paul II, in “The Gospel of Life,” says that we have “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.”

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2, 187.

[7] Barth, Romans, 207-8: “Grace … is the indicative which carries with it a categorical imperative” that we should live our entire lives to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; cf. also 211, 220-22, 234.

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