Saturday, March 19, 2011

One Sin, Infinite Mercy
Rom. 5:12-19[1]
We American Christians have an interesting way of taking sin seriously. The sins of others, that is. We can get righteously indignant about all kinds of structural injustices taking place “out there” in the world. Or we may find ourselves up in arms over the immorality we see in others’ lives. But when it comes right down to it, our way of taking sin seriously means that we take our own sin with a grain of salt. By that I mean that we let ourselves off the hook, while at the same time we insist on stringing up all those real “sinners” out there, whether we think they are the ones who are leading our society down a drain of immorality, or whether we think they are the corporations and power mongers who are stripping the people of their livelihoods and stripping the land of its resources. The bottom line is that, for us, the real sin is “out there.”[2]
I wonder if we can look at ourselves and our actions deeply enough to ponder the effects of one sin. That’s what St. Paul does in our lesson from Romans for today. He looks at one sin—the sin of Adam and Eve—and sees in that one sin the downfall of the whole human race.
I think most of us probably have some challenges with that line of thinking. Can one sin really be that powerful? Well, let’s see. It seems to me that one sin can destroy a whole family. I’m not just talking about a “nuclear family” in terms of parents and kids and dogs and cats. I’m talking about the extended family. One sin can infect a whole clan with bitterness, suspicion, and hatred. And it seems to me that one sin can destroy a congregation. One indiscretion—whether it’s sexual or financial or otherwise, can set the direction for a whole congregation. One sin can define a whole conglomeration of families—for decades, if not generations. Is it going too far to say that one sin can destroy a community? I don’t think so. One act of corporate greed can turn a thriving community into a ghost town. Think of Flint, Michigan. One act of negligence can poison the eco-system of a whole community for generations. Think of Chernobyl! Can we say that one sin can destroy a nation? Yes, I think we can. How many times have we seen rival factions turn a whole nation into a war zone battling over wealth and power? All it takes to destroy a nation is one man’s delusions of grandeur!
What about St. Paul’s assertion that one sin brought death to the whole human race? Well, I think we have to understand first of all that when Paul is talking about death coming to the whole human race as a consequence of one sin, I don’t think he’s talking about the physical limits of human mortality. I think he’s talking about death as a spiritual condition.[3] He’s talking about those actions that affect the spirit, the heart, the mind, the very the soul of who we are as human beings. Can one sin lead to the death of a person’s very soul? Ask any victim of abuse, and I think you will find that it can! I think what the Apostle Paul wants us to consider is that every sin you and I commit has the potential to spread death and destruction much farther than we can imagine. And there are some sins that have the potential to destroy the whole human race.[4]
St. Paul looks at the “original sin” of our first parents in the garden and reminds us that one sin can have consequences for the whole human race. Something about that just doesn’t seem right to our way of thinking. How can one act have such widespread effects? Part of the explanation is that one sin has a tendency to lead to another. And another. And another! St. Paul looks at the whole sweep of human experience, so full of violence and greed and hatred and abuse and corruption and exploitation and injustice and oppression, and he says in effect that it all started with one sin.
For most of us, the idea that the “original sin” of Adam and Eve could be held against us all seems to be unfair. How can God be just if God holds us all guilty for what we didn’t do? The reason why we can’t claim that it’s unfair is that we all have our own history of sin.[5] None of us can claim never to have done anything that might contribute to the spread of death to the whole human race. In fact, each and every one of us, in some way or another, at some time or another, has done our part to extend the grasp of death on the human race a little farther. In a very real sense, what Paul is trying to do is move us to the Lenten discipline of confession—to acknowledge that my sin has far-reaching consequences.
But if we stop there, we run the risk of completely missing the point! St. Paul’s point is not just to make us all keenly aware that sin has far-reaching consequences. He also wants us to be aware that one act of faithfulness has far-reaching benefits. Paul insists that while one sin brought death to the human race, God’s response to the whole flood of countless human sins is infinite mercy. Mercy for each and every sin. Grace that restores and heals and gives life in the place of death. And it is through the one faithful act of Jesus Christ, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross, that God’s infinite mercy extends to the whole human race.[6] Through that one act, God’s generous grace was poured out on all humankind, healing the destructive effects of our sins, restoring the hearts and minds and souls that have been subjected to all kinds of death, and replacing it with the gift of life.[7]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/13/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:532, where he calls this tendency on both sides—those who view sin as primarily immorality and those who view it as primarily structural evil—a “truncated view of sin.”
[3] Cf. Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “The Sting of Death,” Theology Today 45 (Jan 1989): 415-26.
[4] Cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans” Interpretation 58 (July 2004): 231-35 where she points out that Paul portrays sin as a kind of “cosmic terrorist” that “entered the cosmos with Adam, it enslaved, it unleashed Death itself.” From this perspective, she concludes, “Sin cannot be avoided or passed over, it can only be either served or defeated.”
[5] Cf. Paul K. Jewett, Romans, 376. Ernst K√§semann, Romans, 148, cites the Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch 54:19, “each of us has become our own Adam.” Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 290, “Death continues to dominate humanity not solely because of one primeval act but because of humankind’s continued acts of sin.”
[6] Regarding the issue of whether Paul’s language of redemption applies universally to the whole human race, Dunn, Romans 1-8, 297, acknowledges the problem, but asks the question, “How, after all, can grace be ‘so much more’ in its effect if it is less universal than the effect of death?” cf. similarly, Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God, 103-107.
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1:456, and IV.1:333-35, where he speaks of the “alteration of the whole human situation” through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Cf. also Jewett, Romans, 370, 379-80; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 297; Gaventa, “Cosmic Power,” 240.

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