Romans 6

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Mosaics in Mount of Beatitudes: QUAE SURSUM EST IERUSALEM “The Jerusalem above” (Gal 4:26)

12Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.

We don’t like to talk about sin these days, although I suspect that human beings have never liked to talk about sin – at least not our sins. Talking about other people’s sins has become a multi-billion dollar business we call the “News”, but that’s a different matter. I miss Walter Cronkite.

I suspect part of our problem in talking about sin is that we are working with a notion of sin that doesn’t match the world of the scripture. We tend to think of sin in terms of sins, specific thoughts and actions that are against God’s rules. But if we use that concept of sin, the opening line of Sunday’s reading makes no sense.

12Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.

Paul imagines sin as a governing power, capable of exercising dominion, capable of making us “obey their passions.” Whose passions? Sin’s passions? It confuses most of us.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain Paul. Some of the problem is that we are listening to half of the conversation. Paul is arguing with people, but we are not privy to their objections. Some of the problem is that Paul leaves out important elements of the argument because both he and his listeners can fill in the blanks. We are not so fortunate. And part of the problem is that the world in which Paul lives is different than ours.

As a consequence of all this we tend to pick out the verses we understand “The wages of sin is death” and skip over the rest. But then we are reading in our own ideas rather than understanding his. And so we are back to the idea that sins are deeds and their result is death, but Jesus has endured the death in our stead so we are free.

That’s true as far as it goes; it’s just not quite what Paul is saying. Paul sees sin and death as a governing force in the world. It is an evil lord that thrives on misery. It keeps Narnia frozen in ice (C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). It turns Eustace into a dragon (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). It binds and enslaves like an addiction. We chose to act in ways that harm ourselves and others, and yet we cannot choose otherwise. As Luther says so profoundly we are turned in on ourselves. We are born running from God. What we consider ‘free will’ is a will already bound to disobedience, a will that wants to be God rather than let God be God.

In our “natural” state we can serve only ourselves. An infant knows only its own wants, needs and desires. Parents sand off the rough edges of that self-centeredness – and the neighbor kids beat some it out of us (either you share the ball of they don’t let you play) – but it still lurks there in our inner selves.

Until Christ comes. Until we are encountered by selfless love. Until we are met by true generosity. Until we are Val Jean given the bishop’s precious silver with the surprising transforming grace: “you forgot the candlesticks.” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)

Such radical grace carries us into a different realm, a foreign territory – a realm Javert cannot comprehend. But there Paul’s comment begins to make sense: “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies.” Do not let our innate rebellion rule. Do not submit yourselves to serve it as master. Submit yourselves to the one who has called you into his grace.

Choose to stay in the realm of life and not to submit again to death. Choose to abide in the realm of righteousness and not in the realm of sin. Choose to remain in the realm of grace and not law. Choose to dwell in the New Jerusalem not the old. Choose the realm of freedom and don’t go back to old chains.

There is choosing involved. I didn’t choose to journey to this foreign country – but once I have been carried here on the Samaritan’s donkey, then I have a choice whether I will stay or go home, whether I will bend the knee to serve Christ or submit myself back to the dominion of brokenness.

“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies…You, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness….so now present your members as slaves to righteousness.”


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