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The End of Sin

Sermon - 4/17/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 8:1-11

This Sunday, I want to use a little different passage for our reflection than the one that we typically use (you heard the gospel story of Palm Sunday from the gospel of Matthew earlier), but the passage I want to reflect with you on gets more to the question of this whole event, why Jesus had to go through Jerusalem. What his death was all about. It's found in Romans 8, I will read verses one through 11:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.


So I want to begin this morning with a confession. I have a problem with sin.

Now, before you all get excited -- ah, juicy gossip. You know, is this about sex, is it about alcohol, is it about gambling? Has our preacher finally decided to come out of the closet and to reveal: he is a Husky fan?! Nooooo! Not that!

It's none of those things. So don't get excited. The other reason you shouldn't get all excited is that not only do I have a problem with sin, but so do you!

Only my problem, and maybe yours as well, is not at all what you think. The problem with sin that I have this morning is just that it's not what we think it is. Too often, we make sin strictly a matter of personal morals. It's all about my failures, my wrongdoings (as plenty as we all know they are). So when we talk about Jesus dying to take away the sin of the world, well, that must include my sin. So, therefore, I am responsible for the death of Jesus. And that's why Jesus had to go to Jerusalem to die in such a horrible way because I'm such a horrible sinner. What a worm am I, right?

Well folks, here's the first word of good news this morning: it's not about you. It's really not. So get off your high-horse of self-pity and guilt, because you did not cause the death of Jesus. Jesus died for you, yes, absolutely. But that has nothing to do with cheating on your taxes (you did file your taxes, right?). Or cheating on that seventh grade math quiz. Or cheating on your spouse. It's not about those things. Now, maybe nothing is a little bit too absolute, because there is a connection, but it's not that direct connection we often make.

So the first problem I have with sin is that we have made it into an individual matter that makes faith into a private affair, as if one's beliefs were just a matter of personal preference, no different than choosing a brand of deodorant. Well, l I think it's a little more important than that. In fact, sin is much more fundamental, much deeper, than personal choice. You know, it's not as if we wake up each morning and say 'Well, what am i going to do today? I could rob a bank, or I can invent a cure for AIDS. Let's see, what shall it be?' That's not it.

The whole notion of sin really gets down to an issue of character, of who we are at the core of our being, and that's not something we easily change. So while sin may involve choices we make or actions we take, underneath it all is a much larger question of human identity. That's what the story of the fall is all about (the story from the Garden of Eden). And Paul sums it up this way, in the fifth chapter of Romans, verse 12: "Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all, because all have sinned".

In other words, sin isn't so much about our individual deeds as it is the human condition. It's a given of who we are. So it may not be about you, but it is about us. People, humanity, the global community. For God so loved the world. . . . . .And of course "world", you know your Greek, is what? Cosmos. For God so loved the cosmos, all of creation. And Paul even says, later on in the same chapter, all creation will be set free from it's bondage to decay. That's sin in a global sense. Until it attains the freedom of the glory as the children of God.

So sin and salvation is so much bigger than you and me, or what we do.

The second problem I have with sin is that we make such a big deal out of it in the first place. In one sense, yeah, I am making a big deal, but in a different way than we usually do. So, guess how many verses there are in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which Jesus talks about sin, in which he names sin? 10? 20? 50? Actually, you can count it on one hand -- 3. Matthew has all 3, Mark has one of the three, Luke doesn't have any. Jesus never says the word 'sin' in the gospel of Luke.

In the gospel of John, Jesus gives it a little bit more attention, all of 10 verses. How many verses are there in the Gospels devoted to the problem of rich vs poor? A hundred, at least -- I mean, 10 times as much, literally. So why do we spend so much more time and energy confronting the problem of sin than we do confronting the evils of economic injustice?

Maybe it's because we'd rather worry about the splinter in someone else's eye than the log in our own. Maybe it's because we like to talk about family values more than social values. Maybe it's because it's easier to talk about personal sin than it is about personal wealth. Maybe they are two sides of the same coin. And we need to rediscover that proper balance between those two.

That's one of the challenges we face, and one of the things we talk about often here. But for whatever reason, where Jesus says surprisingly little on the topic, Paul is quite verbose on it. And it's interesting to note that a full one-third of the passages devoted to sin in the New Testament are contained in chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8 of Romans, of which our text here this morning is the conclusion. Paul mentions sin no less than 42 times in those four chapters alone. That's 10 times more than Jesus does.

So clearly sin is a bigger issue for Paul than it is for Jesus (makes sense, Paul is a sinner, Jesus isn't, right?). But I wonder why? Why does he choose this letter to Rome to give it his fullest exposition?

I propose to you that this treatment by Paul is not an accident of geography. That the answer to why sin is such a focus of Paul's letter to the Romans is found in Rome itself. And that when we understand why Paul went to Rome with this message, we also understand why Jesus went to Jerusalem.

Two weeks from today, a group of about 18 of us from the congregation are headed for our own pilgrimage to Rome. We will be starting off in Western Turkey, near Ephesus. Along the way, we will be reading Paul's letters as we examine Paul's world. And we'll reflect on his message to that world. By the way, you can follow us on a new blog -- http://www.WorldOfPaulPilgrimage.blogspot.com -- and we'll put that link out there for folks who want to follow us. In fact, you can go to it now and see the video that describes the whole purpose of the trip as well as our itinerary. And we'll post updates regularly as we move along on the trip.

Well, just as it is important to examine what we know about the world of Paul, it's also important to take a close look at what we know about the letters of Paul. Well, that's obvious, right? But less obvious is how those letters have been translated.

Ma Ferguson, famous as the first woman elected governor of Texas, in 1925 (that alone is quite incredible), reelected one term out, then she came back in 1933. She was known for her witticisms (clever and witty sayings) and one of them was "If English is good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for the children of Texas" :). Well, it turns out that the history of that quote is tainted. It has been traced back all the way to 1881, and it has been attributed to politicians as recently as Senator Strom Thurmond. Of course, he himself goes back to 1881 :). That was not intended as a 'factual statement' :).

I can tell from the laughter who pays attention to the Colbert Report. If you're not following the news or your don't watch the Colbert Report (what's the difference?), you may not have heard. The news item, thanks to a current Senator, Senator Kyl, we can now make up facts to serve our purposes, and then we just issue a disclaimer: "Not intended as a factual statement". Senator Kyl said "90%" when he meant to say "3%". Just a small difference. He was referring to abortion services at Planned Parenthood. But what's 87% among politicians?

So, fortunately, translations of the Bible into English are not done by politicians!

So they're a little more precise, but translation is more of an art than it is a science. And so the meaning of the text is sometimes ambiguous.

For instance, I've used this illustration before, something so simple as a preposition (you all know your prepositions, right?) -- "in" or "of", in this case, in Galatians 2:16 where Paul says "we are justified by faith in Christ". Well, guess what, up until 1901, all English translations, including the King James Bible, said that "we are justified by the faith of Christ". That's different, much different. You could spend a lifetime pondering the difference in the meaning of that single preposition. In fact, it has been suggested that Martin Luther's entire theology of justification by faith in Christ hangs on the meaning of that preposition. But that's a topic for another sermon.

The topic of this sermon is sin. And the Greek word for sin is "hamartia", universally translated in every translation as 'sin', save one (and I'm going to come back to that in just a second). Now, we all know the meaning of sin, right? Well, it turns out how sin is used in the Old Testament is different than how it is used in the New Testament, is different in how it is used between the gospels, which is also different than how it is used by Paul.

The history of the concept of sin is as murky as that of Ma Ferguson's quote. And anyone who has studied any Greek at all (which is precisely the amount I studied -- barely any at all :), knows that Bauer's Greek English lexicon is the definitive dictionary of New Testament Greek. In that, Bauer's says "Paul thinks of sin almost in personal terms, as a ruling power". Now that's interesting. If Paul thinks of sin as a ruling power, what might he have in mind?

That Paul describes sin not as a 'thing' but as a 'being' who came into the world (in the creation story), has dwelt in the world ever since, relating to human beings as a master relates to a slave. And so for Paul, sin is the opposite of God.

Jesus takes on the being of sin in the flesh, on the cross. And it is then sin itself that is crucified, hence, the end of sin. Meaning not that sin ceases to exist, but that it no longer has any hold over us. As Paul says in verse two: "For the law the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death".

Now, if you asked anyone in Paul's world, if you ask any of those travelers going to Paul's world when they come back (because they're going to get this), what being had a hold on the world? And the universal answer would be: the son of God, Lord and Savior of the world, Caesar.

And given that Rome was Caesar's seat of power over the world, I wonder, could Paul's portrayal of sin as this cosmic power that permeates all things be in and of itself a very thinly veiled critique of that power that the recipients of that letter all would have recognized as residents of that city?

Four New Testament scholars, including Lane McGaughy, who recently retired from Willamette University (just north of us), spent 10 years translating just the seven letters that they considered most authentic of Paul. 10 years, working on 7 letters. A very rigorous academic process, word-by-word, line-by-line. And in the introduction to this new translation, known as the Scholars Version, the write: "Mythic speech emerges in the ancient world whenever people find themselves in something beyond their control. They use mythic language to get a sense of orientation, identity, and access to the powers of the universe. The Roman Empire thrived on such mythic construction. This gave Rome the capacity to define the power relations of the world".

And so you see the claim of Caesar as a divine being, son of God, was neither grandiosity nor pagan idolatry. It was fundamental to Roman identity. And their belief in their diving right, given by God, to be masters of the inhabited world.

So here's the point: Paul uses that kind of mythic language and rhetoric to assert his claim that it's Jesus, not Caesar, who is son of God and Lord of the world.

And so the authors, in that book, note that the standard translation of "harmatia" as 'sin' does not "catch the mythic reaches of Paul's speech. Today, the word 'sin' does not have a public venue. It is confined to a segregated religious habitat. Yet Paul, in Romans for example, wants to talk about the reach and fatal grasp of a corrosive power extending through time and space".

And so they have chosen to translate that word "harmatia" as "the seductive power of corruption".

Huh. Now that comes out a little different. So if we read Romans 8 again (I'll read just a couple verses, chapter 8, verses 2 and 3): "For the rule of the Spirit of life that was in the anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by a seductive corruption and death. For by sending God's own son, a participant like us in an earthly life attended by seductive corruption to deal with that corrupting power, God did what the law of Moses, weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence, was incapable of doing. God condemned the corrupting power that attends our earthly life".

And then verse 10: "But if the anointed lives in you, although your body is in the grip of death because of that seductive power of corruption, your spirit is alive because of God's reliability".

The Authentic Letters of Paul (it's a book we used in our class on Paul that just ended this past week), when I read that, it was a light-bulb that just went 'on'. And I went "aha!". This is why Paul talks so much about sin in that letter to the Romans. For Paul, sin is not so much about our individual actions and failures, it's about this corrosive power that permeates the world. And is embodied in the Roman Empire, and all worldly power. And then it comes down to our individual lives.

That power, which is so seductive, will take over our lives if we do not tap into another power to counter it. And thus it is faith in God's power, as demonstrated by Jesus, the power of the Spirit of life, that gives us the means to counter such corruptive, corrosive power. The power of flesh, as Paul calls it. Worldly power.

And it was that faith of Jesus in God that led him to Jerusalem to challenge that worldly, corrupting power. Trusting that even if it crushed him, God would vindicate him.

It was that faith of Paul in God, that led him to Rome to confront that same power, knowing full well what it could do. And confident because of that vindication of Jesus that God had condemned that power, enabling us to live by a different power, the Spirit of life.

So as we now turn our eyes to Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested and sent to the cross, and where Paul was arrested and sent to Rome, we too are reminded of that corruptive power which still rules over our world and tries to rule over our lives.

May we then remember it's not about you or me. It's about God's desire for our world.

It's not about satisfying our privileges and desires. It's about assuring that we will still have a viable health care system that will provide for an 85-year-old diabetic living on Social Security, 10, 20 or 30 years from now, whatever system our government comes up with.

It's not about the right to drive whatever I want as fast as I want, it's about the health of the environmental systems on which we all depend.

It's not about the personal lives of public officials, it's about the public decisions that affect personal lives and the civil rights of all.

It's not about how much wealth we can accumulate, it's about how much wealth we can generate for all God's children, to benefit all creation.

It's not about my individual sin, or yours. I mean, it's partly about that, it's something that we all need to work out, as Paul says "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling", in Philippians 2. It's about that corruptive power that killed Jesus, that killed Paul, and continues to take away the life to this day.

It is the spirit of life, the Spirit of God that vindicated Jesus. It is that Spirit dwelling in us that puts an end to sin, and will ultimately defeat the corruptive power of the world.

It is the only thing that can.


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