“Back to the Source: SIN”

Sermon

November 12, 2917:  Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon

What is wrong with our world?! What is wrong with us? Last Sunday—one week ago—while this church family was sitting in pews and sharing in the Lord’s Supper an awful and horrific tragedy was taking place at another church in Texas. As we contemplate such senseless darkness, its only natural that we try to make sense out of it, that we look for reasons, explanations, causes. And we fall back into our old old debates. Some find blame in one corner others in another corner. If only we had less guns. If only we had more guns. Who is to blame, what is to blame? Mental illness? Disregard for human life? Broken homes? Scars from military experience? Who is to blame? What is to blame? What’s wrong with us as a country, a people, a world?
Politicians and pundits have their own self-serving quick and easy answers to that question. But as Christians, as people of faith, one of the ways that we seek to answer that question is with the doctrine of sin. Sin is what is wrong with us, sin in what is wrong with our world.

These violent atrocities aren’t the only signs of our sins. Our news feeds these days are filled with stories of sexual assault committed by actors and athletes, comedians and politicians. Terrorism, war, nuclear proliferation, rampant poverty, domestic abuse, sex trafficking—our sins are well covered and fully documented. As the author of Psalm 51 states, “[We] know [our] transgressions and [our] sin is ever before [us].”

Everywhere we look we see our brokenness–not just looking around us, but also looking behind us into our past. Our history is filled with the evidence of our fallen, sinful nature. As humans, our story is full of violence and hate. It always has been We can become whitewashed by a nostalgia that pretends things are worse today that in the past, but in truth we are just as sinful now as we were decades ago, centuries ago, 2,000 years ago. From a biblical perspective, Sin and violence, brokenness and disregard for human life are nothing new. They have been with us since nearly the very beginning.

So, our question for today is a very real one from our past and a very relevant one for our present: what is sin?

The Bible talks about sin in many ways and uses many images: a debt that we owe, missing the mark (missing the bullseye), overstepping limits, straying from God’s ways, rebelling, acting unjustly, treacherously, or profanely, being twisted, perverse, evil, wicked, or foolish.[i] There are so many images that seek to convey a sense of loss, or fallen-ness from what God intends for our lives.

When we talk about sin, I find we often fall into one of two traps: either we focus too much on 1) other people’s sins, or we focus too much 2) on our own sins.

When we are tempted to focus on other people’s sins, what’s wrong with all “those people,” Jesus’ own words invite us to take a long hard look at our own sinfulness. When a woman is caught in the sin of adultery he tells the angry mob that wants to execute her “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He tells his disciples that if their eye or hand or other body parts cause them to sin they should cut them off. He challenges our hypocrisy by telling us to see the log in our own eye rather than focusing on the speck in our neighbor’s eye. He gets in trouble with the authorities because he eats with sinners, because he associates with “those people.” In other words, he invites me to spend way more my time, my thoughts, my prayers on my own sins, not those of someone else.

On the other hand, we can go too far and focus too much on our own sinfulness. As we’ve spent the fall remembering the stories of the Protestant Reformation, we cannot ignore the roll that sin had to play in the life of Martin Luther. Luther was a very anxious and guilt-ridden soul. By today’s standards we would surely diagnose him with some sort of psychological condition. Yet, Luther’s worry was not psychological but theological. He was haunted by the fear of his sins. He became a monk hoping to tame his fears by outwardly surrounding himself with reminders of his faith, but that only made it worse. He would go to personal confession with a priest every day and spend hours and hours listing all the wrong things he had done, all the sins which he was afraid he would be punished for. And then when he was finally finished and walking back to his room, he would remember one more sin that he had forgotten and would go running back to confess that one too. His mind and heart were trapped and fixated on his sin.

And so it came as a true shock and surprise when late one night, while reading the book of Romans Luther encountered a radically different truth about his sinful nature than what he had been taught. He saw in this scripture that Christ’s righteousness (not his own) is what would save him. What mattered even more than his sin was God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ. That night, Luther experienced a profound and life-changing sense of freedom from his sin—freedom not because he had corrected his imperfections or healed himself from what was broken, but freedom from knowing that Christ has conquered sin for him, once and for all! This seed of grace and truth would lead him to champion a theology more focused on grace than on sin, and it would compel him into the efforts to reform his church in ways that showed God’s grace. In truth, the Protestant Reformation really began that night, when Luther read about forgiveness in the book of Romans. Friends, be careful when you read you Bible, it just might change the world!

So, what exactly does the book of Romans have to say about sin? This letter is Paul’s final theological masterpiece. His magnum opus. He wrote it to a church that was severely divided along racial, ethical, religious, and social lines. Jews and Gentiles. Paul is writing in hopes of unifying that church family, and he begins to do so by throwing them all in the same pot. He says you may think that are better than each other, that being Jewish or being Gentile makes you superior and gives you a leg up in the world. But guess what folks, you’re all a bunch of sinners. Paul says all of you, all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all equally sinful, because for Paul, sin isn’t just the bad things you do. Those are merely the symptoms of the deeper darker disease, and all of us are equally infected by it. For Paul sin is a state that we are in, a condition in which we are all stuck, and the closest analogy he can use to describe it is being enslaved.

Slavery. Slavery to sin. In the American South we know all too well about the haunting, dehumanizing power of the institution of slavery. To be owned by someone else. To belong as property to someone else. You might have had some limited autonomy to decide what song to sing while you worked, whether to make friends with other slaves or just look out for yourself. But no matter what actions you did, everything in your life was performed under the condition, the state of being, the reality of slavery. That’s what Paul says sin is like. It’s not just what we do, it’s what we are trapped by, what we are stuck in, what we are enslaved to.

Paul goes on in Romans to explain the good news of the gospel, that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have set us free from this slavery. He has redeemed our brokenness. He has transferred us from the dominion of sin, that great tyrant, to the rule of grace and love under the power of our God of grace and love.

Then in our scripture this morning, anticipating questions or challenges, he asks, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” If God is going to forgive us anyway should we keep on sinning so that God can forgive us all the more? If you are a teenager out too late and you suspect your parent is going to forgive you for breaking curfew should you stay out even longer, hours and hours later, so that your parent’s forgiveness can be even stronger? If your boss tells you she’s going to forgive you and not press charges for stealing from the company, should you just keep on stealing so that her forgiveness is an even bigger deal? Should we who are forgiven, continue in sin? Paul says, “By no means.” Some Bibles render this “certainly not!” or “absolutely not.” This is a place where our English translations may be a bit too tame. For Paul is so emphatic here that he nearly drops an expletive. Should we keep on living by the old ways of sin? “[Blank] No!” He says. Because Christ has died so have you, you’ve died to that old way of life. And going back there is as nonsense as a slave who has been set free returning back to live in slavery again. No, he says, Christ has died and been raised again, and so have you. You, who are in Christ, who are baptized into his body, you are forgiven of your sin, so live like it. In light of the cross and the resurrection, live lives of gratitude because of God’s grace, live lives of   joy because you have been justified, live lives of service because you have been saved. Do not return to the old dominion of sin, but live ethically and responsibly because you have been set free.

The good news of the gospel is that sin is broken and defeated once and for all in Christ!

There’s an episode of the Andy Griffith Show in which Barney Fife falls asleep in church, right in the middle of the sermon. After worship is over he shakes the pastor’s hand and comments on how wonderful the sermon was. He says, “Yes sir, that’s one topic you just can’t talk enough about: sin!” Of course, Barney is wrong because missed the whole sermon, but he’s also wrong in another way. It is not sin but God’s forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, that we just can’t talk enough about!

To God alone be the glory!

[i] Al Winn, A Christine Primer, 64.

 

Scripture

Romans 6: 1-4, 10-14

 

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

 

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