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.”


The strange journey

Sunday Evening

Matthew 5

File:Pair of Candlesticks LACMA M.62.46.41a-b.jpg44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The teaching of Jesus is pretty clear: everyone is to be seen and treated as a member of your own family.  What is not so clear is its application.  What does it mean to love an Osama bin Laden?  Was Dietrich Bonheoffer correct when he participated in the plot to kill Hitler?  You can certainly make the argument that love of neighbor trumps the love of Hitler and calls for a necessary violence, but what about this command to love your enemies?

The argument that love of neighbor trumps love of enemy is the same argument that justifies violence in the protection of one’s family.  Though we must admit this is often just a mask for protecting what matters to me – my stuff, my people.

What would it look like, face to face with a burglar, to love him?  What does love require?  What does it mean to regard him or her as a brother or sister?

I would not let my child steal from another.  It is certainly not in my child’s best interest to allow such behavior.  To stand by, to not stop her, would not be an act of love toward her.  If I would not let a family member do such a thing, I should not let any others do so.  There are parents who report their children to the police because they know their child must be held accountable.  Yet, in Les Miserables, when Valjean has been captured running from the bishop’s home with the bishop’s treasured silver, and thrown down at the Bishop’s feet by the policeman Javert with the unlikely story that the silver was a gift, the Bishop says, “My friend, you left in such a hurry you forgot the candlesticks.”  It is an act of generosity and grace that transforms Valjean’s life.

The path Jesus lays out for us, the path of creative and radical response to the brokenness of the world in hopes of healing, is not black and white.  It’s not a simple list of rules.  It is a much more complicated journey of compassion and wisdom, creativity and courage – like giving up your cloak and going home naked or insisting your adversary treat you with honor by striking your left cheek.  It is a journey shaped by a vision of the world made whole – the world made perfect – the world reconciled and transformed.  It is a journey shaped by nothing less that God’s own Spirit.

Such a journey can easily be sidetracked by our ability to deceive ourselves and rationalize our desires if it is not governed by a serious attention to the voice of God that comes down to us through the law and prophets – and by participation in a community of faith listening together to that Word.  Rules are so much simpler.  But if rules were enough, Moses would have been enough.  We need also the story of the cross (the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep) the resurrection (God’s vindication of Jesus) and the ascension (that this Jesus, crucified and risen, is the governing truth of all existence, the bread and water of life, the light and life of the world).

The Bishop understands the power of love, the sacrificial gift, and the creative response to life’s brokenness.  Javert couldn’t grasp such a world of radical and reckless grace.  But it is the true journey to wholeness.