Monday, April 03, 2017

No Comparison

No Comparison
Romans 5:12-19[1]
I think one of the worst things to happen to the Christian faith was when sin became the primary focus of attention. That might sound like a strange thing for a preacher to be saying on the first Sunday of Lent. Of course, I’m not trying to say that sin is unimportant. But whatever you make the starting point for your faith is going to have a significant effect on what you believe. You know what I’m talking about: you’ve been to other churches where people are constantly made to feel guilty. And as a result, God’s love comes across not as unconditional, but as something that depends on what we do. If we make the right choice, then the “good news” is that we’re in the clear. If not, well, the “news” is not so good.
One of the things I like about the way we approach the faith in our tradition is that we start with God’s grace. We see that in the sacrament of Baptism: it demonstrates that God’s love chooses us before we even have the capacity to make a choice for ourselves. We see it in the sacrament of Communion: God’s love continually strengthens us so that we can follow Christ. Obviously, we don’t ignore sin. We have a confession of sin at the beginning of every worship service. But we confess our sins with the confidence that we’re approaching a God of grace, whose love for us is unconditional and irrevocable. In my mind, that makes all the difference in the shape of our faith.
This might also seem like a strange introduction to a sermon about our lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this passage, Paul reminds us that the “original sin” of our first parents had 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 hold us all accountable for something 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.[2] None of us can claim never to have done anything that might contribute to the spread of sin’s effects on 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 sin 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 our sin has far-reaching consequences. 
I think we also have a problem with St. Paul’s assertion that one sin brought death to the whole human race.  But what we have to understand is that Paul isn’t primarily talking about the physical limits of human mortality.  I think he’s talking about death as a spiritual condition.   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.  Even still, we might not like the idea that one sin could lead to the death of a person’s very soul. But I think if you ask a victim of any kind of violence or addiction 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.  
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 each sin has far-reaching consequences. I think the main point of this passage is that however powerful the effect of our sin may be, there is no comparison with the powerful effect of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Paul insists that while one sin brought “death” to the whole human race, the one faithful act of Jesus Christ, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross, brought God’s grace to the whole human race. And God’s grace is far more powerful than our sin. Through that one act, God’s generous grace was poured out on all humankind, healing the destructive effects of our sin, restoring the hearts and minds and souls that have been subjected to all kinds of death, and replacing it with the gift of life.[3]
Throughout this passage, St. Paul insists that there’s no comparison between the one sin of Adam and the one righteous act of Jesus, giving his life for us all. As he contrasts the two, he repeated says that the gift of grace and life through Jesus Christ “much more surely” outweighs the effects of our sin. I like the way The Message puts it: “There's no comparison between that death-dealing sin and this generous, life-giving gift” (Rom. 5:16). And so Paul concludes, “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” (Rom. 5:18).[4]
I think the reason for all of this is that, while St. Paul certainly doesn’t minimize the problem of sin, God’s grace plays a far more important role in his understanding of the gospel. His faith is based on the conviction that God acts in each of our lives to bring us new life before we are even aware of what he’s doing. In fact, God is always working in each of our lives, constantly surrounding us with his love and mercy, drawing us to trust in him and so to find that his grace by far overcomes the consequences of our sins. When you think about it, how could our sin ever be more powerful than God’s love? As serious as our sin will always be, when you set it alongside God’s grace, there really is no comparison.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/5/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Paul K. Jewett, Romans, 376.  Ernst Käsemann, 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.”
[3] 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. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:333-35, where he speaks of the “alteration of the whole human situation” through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Cf. similarly, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans” Interpretation 58 (July 2004): 240: “The gospel Paul proclaims is that God has not left us alone and powerless. In Jesus Christ, God has already broken Death and Sin and will finally crush Satan on our behalf. Confidence in that word is the beginning of peace and joy and the obedience of faith.” See also Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God, 103-107; and Jewett, Romans, 370, 379-80.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 205, where he points to the divine righteousness as an event that takes place in the cross and resurrection of Jesus as “the universal gospel, which is oriented towards the new creation that fulfils all things, sets them right with God and so gives them status and being.” He continues, “Divine righteousness ‘happens’ here, and the gospel reveals it by proclaiming the event of the obedience of Jesus even to the death of the cross, by proclaiming the event of his surrender to this death, and by proclaiming his resurrection and his life as the coming of the divine righteousness to the unjust.”

Paying Attention

Paying Attention
2 Peter 1:16-21[1]
One of the benefits of living in the “information age” is that we have relatively quick and easy access to a lot of information. Many of us have at our fingertips the equivalent of an unimaginably large library with just about anything you might need. But at the same time, I think one of the great challenges of living in this age is that we have access to so much information. Without a proper framework for making sense of it all, it can just become overwhelming. Rather than putting forth the effort to sort out fact from farce, we accept as truth whatever seems convenient. Or what’s worse, we simply tune out.
Unfortunately, this also applies to our faith. With all the different voices claiming to represent Christ in our world, it can be confusing. Between television, radio, the internet, social media, books, and magazines, the fact is that those who speak for Christ do not speak with a consistent voice. To some extent, variety in the Christian message is to be expected. It comes from our different backgrounds and experiences and perspectives. That’s a healthy thing. But I’m afraid it goes beyond that. The collective voices of all those who speak for our faith disagree on matters that are fundamental, ranging from how we experience new life to what living out that life looks like to what our ultimate hope is. The resulting confusion can lead us to tune out rather than paying attention and trying to find a perspective that makes sense out of the teachings of Scripture.
The fact of the matter is that the Christian community has always had to deal with divergent voices that have made it challenging for people to know what to believe. Most of the apostolic writings in the New Testament bear witness to this. There was no mass communication technology in that day. The only methods the apostles had for dealing with this problem were to personally visit a church, to send a representative, or to write a letter. That’s why many of the New Testament letters were written in the first place: to clear up the confusion caused by rival preachers and teachers presenting views that called the apostolic faith into question.
This was the case for 2 Peter. In fact, much of the letter is devoted to refuting “false teachers” who contradicted the message of the apostles, who advocated a blatant disregard for the most basic ethical principles of the Bible, and who did all this in order to enrich themselves at the expense of their audience. As you can imagine, the response to this kind of flagrant deception was less than polite. In fact, 2 Peter is not unique in that. Most of the apostles saw those who were teaching with a different voice as a threat—primarily a threat to the well-being of those who were led astray by their “deceptive words” (2 Pet. 2:3).
In the case of 2 Peter, the primary problem had to do with the Christian hope. In the New Testament, that hope was focused on the return of Christ. Of course, throughout the history of the church, our faith in the return of Christ and the final fulfillment of God’s saving work has raised basic questions. What happens to believers when we die? Do we have to wait for the day when Jesus returns to be raised to new life? Are we looking forward to all of this taking place in heaven or on a new earth? It’s not hard to find conflicting views on these and many other aspects of our hope.
Apparently, 2 Peter was written long enough after Jesus’ resurrection that many were beginning to deny that there would be a “second coming” at all (2 Pet. 3:4). In response, the letter pointed to the transfiguration of Jesus as a foreshadowing of his return. Claiming to be a witness of the glory revealed at that time as well as the voice that attested Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son, 2 Peter insists that “we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed” (2 Pet. 1:19). What those who were there saw and heard left them without doubt that Jesus would indeed return in the full majesty of his glory as Savior and Lord.[2]
Unfortunately, some have approached this passage as if it advocates that Scripture is to be accepted at face value. The truth is that kind of simple faith works for some people. But I find that unquestioning belief doesn’t go over too well with most of us. Scripture itself raises questions, some of which we cannot readily answer.[3] And any written document has to be interpreted—especially ancient writings that addressed a very different time or place. I think what all this means is that we’re going to have to put forth some effort if we’re going to “pay attention" to the apostolic message, "because it is like a lamp shining in a dark place until the Day dawns” (2 Pet. 1:19, TEV). I think that means more than a simple casual reading of select verses. It means serious and sustained study of the source of our faith.[4]
Cultivating faith has never been easy. There have always been those who raise objections they think clearly refute what we believe. There will always be a wide diversity of voices claiming to speak on behalf of Christ. It takes some intentional effort to sort through the tangle of sometimes conflicting messages out there. But it seems to me that our lesson for today points us in the right direction: the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures have always been our guide. That doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically find the answer to our questions simply by flipping through our Bible. We have to do more than that to be able to sort through the chaotic voices in our day. It takes systematic and serious study of the Bible. In order to find clarity, we have to do a better job of “paying attention” to Scripture.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/26/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Apologetic Use of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-21,”  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42 (1980): 509-514.
[3] Cf. Neyrey, “ Apologetic Use,” 517 (fn 50), where he points out that “the position of Peter as an intelligent interpreter of oracles and tradition stands in tension with other traditions that portray him as not understanding what he sees or hears” (e.g., in the Gospels).
[4] In this particular context, Neyrey, “Apologetic Use,” 518-19, makes a persuasive argument that the “prophecy” that is at issue is the transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the return of Christ. He says, “The parousia-prophecy has already been defended as regards its source (i.e., God, vv. 17-18) and its authenticity (έπόπται, v. 16); vv. 20-21 add the author’s apology for his interpretation (see 3:1-2, 9-13,15-16). In this framework, the author senses that his opponents consider this interpretation of eschatological materials idiosyncratic and self-serving; hence it is incumbent upon him to continue to defend his own credentials for leaving an accurate remembrance of these matters.” Contrast R. J. Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude, 224. While he recognizes that Neyrey’s view is held by the majority of NT scholars, he argues that the “prophetic word” refers to passages from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible which the NT authors used along with their eyewitness experience to confirm the promise of the return of Christ.