Homily for Lent 1, Year A, 2011
Sunday, March 13th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 5:12-19
If because of one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Life is filled with choices. Some choices are of such an inconsequential nature that we barely realize that we are making them. I may find myself driving on a particular route because it is the one I always choose. I may find myself purchasing a particular brand of tea because it is the one I like and the one I always choose. A detour may cause me to choose a different route, or when my brand of tea is sold out I may be forced to choose another. However, even when such things happen, they are hardly catastrophic, and the decision-making involved in such unforeseen moments is hardly more consequential than the decision-making involved in the original choice.
Other choices may be more difficult and fraught with ethical and moral decisions that may be much more complicated. Sometimes we are called upon to act in ways that are in contradiction to our belief system, and what shall we do. In our working lives we may find our personal values colliding with the values of our employer. In our families we may find our values conflicting with other members of the family. Do we choose to make a stand, or do we go with the flow? We may ask the age-old question, “is this worth going to the wall for?” or “am I going to die in this particular trench?”
Regardless of what we decide in such situations, our decisions will have consequences. Often we make decisions that weigh us down, things done and left undone, action or lack of action that causes us considerable regret.
As human beings we all make bad decisions at some point or another. We make decisions that betray our own and shared values, we make decisions that hurt others, hurt ourselves, and wound the heart of God. Sin has many definitions, but I think that at the heart of any definition of sin, we must seriously consider a definition that includes our human propensity to consistently make bad decisions -- decisions to do the things that we know we probably ought not to do, and decisions not to act when we know action is needed.
In the mythopoetic world of Genesis, in the story of Eden, our primordial ancestors became involved in some very bad decision-making. Although they knew what was right, they grasped at divinity, eternity, and infinite knowledge, and as a result cursed themselves with fallen humanity, the finality of death, and the limitation of ignorance. Our primordial ancestors sought a good thing but did so through a profound act of disobedience to their Creator God.
Deep within our fallen humanity is a longing for what is good and also deep within us lurks the mistaken conviction that the end justifies the means. Our mistakes, our bad decisions, our sinfulness are all about justifying questionable behaviour for the good that may come. The impulse to do so is primal and difficult to avoid.
Thus for St. Paul, the primordial sin of Adam is the sin we all share as human beings. Sin is part of our fallen nature, and the excuses we make for sin and our bad decision-making seem justifiable to us because often the ends we seek are good. But Paul boldly proclaims in the face of our self-deceit that the true end of sin is death. In the cosmic scale, again in the language of Genesis, man’s first disobedience was repaid with the finality of existence, by death. One wonders, though, if the concept of death might function on another level and if the sinner is also condemned to experience a kind of living death?
When I make bad decisions, decisions against my values and beliefs, decisions that I know to be wrong, a part of me dies inside. When I see that my decisions may hurt another person, a part of me dies. The selfishness evident in much of the decision-making that we do as a society creates a world of the walking dead. We need not wait til the end of our lives to experience death, for do we not experience it in life?
Fortunately, for all Paul’s exploration about the origins of sin and its wages, Paul is not primarily concerned about sin or its consequence, death. Rather, Paul cares to share a message of the complete opposite nature. Paul proclaims the message of righteousness and of life. Paul sees the dilemma of the human condition, Paul understands the relentless impulses of our primordial urges, and Paul knows only too well that this is something from which we cannot escape under our own power, for it is simply part of being the heirs of Adam, being human in a fallen world.
Yet, Paul is also aware of a different reality, a different sort of humanity, a new, reborn humanity that has a second chance. Where we might only look about in despair, Paul sees hope; where we might wonder how we can escape the treadmill of things done and left undone, Paul witnesses to the Christ-event as the power of God to transform our reality. Where we are helpless, God enters in and changes things. Paul admits that the power of sin is great, that it is a primordial impulse that is hard, indeed impossible, to resist; yet, how much more powerful is the impulse of God? If sin came to us through Adam, how much more powerful is the righteousness that his imputed to us in Christ? The first Adam erred, the second Adam, Jesus Christ, makes right. The great Roman Catholic theologian, Cardinal Dulles wrote about this passage, “God’s grace is more powerful than man’s sinfulness, so that when sin abounded, grace abounded even more. Our belief in the superabundant power of grace when confronted by evil is founded upon the historical tangibility of God’s redemptive love in Christ.”
The choice then that is before us, the real decision that we need to make, is to whom do we belong? Which Adam is our master? Shall we belong to our primordial reality or to our redeemed reality? Do we belong to Adam or do we belong to Christ?
Ah, you may say, Christ is too high a thing to be attained; I am not capable of choosing the good. This may be so, and it would not be possible unless God first reached out to us. For Christ is not a high thing to be reached for but, the very presence of God come amongst us. Christ is the hand of God reaching for us that we may lay hold on life. The great German New Testament scholar, Ernst Kasemann wrote with respect to Romans 5 that as God reaches out to each individual, “God is concretely reaching out to the world.”
The gift that we receive in Christ is a free gift, we can do nothing to attain to it we may only receive it in the spirit of graciousness in which it is offered. And when is that gift offered? It is in the nexus of choice, in the moment of crisis, it is in the frightening wound of our vulnerability. It comes when all around us and within us urges us to listen to the voice of the primordial Adam which whispers to us the lie that self-preservation is the good above all. But the gift comes to us not preaching self-preservation, but confronting us with self-abandonment, risk, and sacrifice. The Word comes among us confronting us with the scandalous truth that the one who hangs dying on the tree is the one who destroys sin and death through his own self-effacing, self-denying sacrifice. To which tree shall I turn? To the one that gives forth a seductively ripe fruit now but withers when picked, or to the tree which at first seems an instrument of death, yet whose fruit ripens in the sepulcher and blossoms forth with life?
To whom shall I lay hold, to which tree shall I turn? Shall I turn to the tree of beauty that entangles or that stark tree upon which hangs the Lord with arms stretched wide? On the tree on which God hangs, God has risked all. Oh, the fruit of the former tree may be sweet to the taste, but only for but a moment. That same fruit weights heavily within me after but a moment: how it works away on my soul, consuming me from within. It is the tree from which I have tasted all my life. Perhaps it is time to turn to the other tree, to taste of another fruit, the fruit of that tree that confronts me with the dreadful but beautiful choice to abandon all, to plunge headlong into the arms of grace, and to risk being held by the arms that risk all for me.
And what do I find in that choice? I see the arms of my Lord no longer fastened to the wood, but enfolded around me. The fruit of which I have previously eaten is no longer eating away at me from within; rather I find that paradoxically, by clinging to the dying man on the cross, by joining my risk to his, I have chosen life, not only a life that transcends the grave, but a life for this age, a life in this world, a new life, new authenticity. It is not a life without mistakes or bad choices, but a life in which mistake and bad choices no longer destroy my soul, a life in which I find the courage to confront my mistakes, my sinfulness, and ask God to draw me day by day, into the true life which, in which the end and the means are not at odds but at one in self-giving love and joy.
c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves