A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on June 2, 2019.
Our passage this week drops us right into the middle of Paul’s argument. For those who weren’t here last week, including myself, we should maybe reach back into chapter five where this argument began. It was there that Paul writes, “….but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”[i]
While I agree with Paul, I am not sure I would have highlighted, nor said it, in exactly the same way. Because by doing so it is too easy to misinterpret it. It allows some clown to teach that since you are saved by grace and God has completely dealt with your sins — sin as much as you can so that grace might be in even more abundance.
It is the person on the corner shouting: Sin it up! You are already forgiven. It really doesn’t matter what you do. God will forgive you anyway.
In these sentiments I hear the echo of the acronym YOLO — you only live once — as a justification for behavior. It is along the same lines as the Latin “carpe diem” — a call to live life to its fullest extent. To which some use to embrace behavior that carries inherent risk or harm.
Do what you want. Because sin gives grace a chance to operate in your life. The more you sin the more grace you get. But that kind of teaching and thinking is actually all about abusing grace. The individual who proclaims such should really question whether they have ever been saved by grace at all.
In essence all of this is the legalist arguing with Paul’s logic: “Once saved always saved leads to lawlessness. Preachers of salvation by grace through faith weaken our community’s sense of moral responsibility. All this grace talk only encourage sinful behavior.”
In a candid observation, Dr. D. M. Lloyd–Jones, a Welsh Protestant minister and medical doctor who was the minister of Westminster Chapel in London for nearly 30 years said, “There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean… that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace.”
To the legalist it is the risk… to Dr. Lloyd-Jones it is the test… to Paul it is the argument — where sin increases, grace abounds all the more. Again, I probably wouldn’t have said it exactly that way, but since he does, Paul has to respond to the resulting claim — more sin is good business for grace, giving it lots of opportunity to shine.
And now we are into the heart of our reading and Paul’s rebuttal: Those who continue to live a life dependent on sin haven’t been transformed by grace. Paul’s argument isn’t a suggestion that once you love Jesus you won’t make mistakes. He’s arguing you’ll be living under a new realm, a new creation, a new economy — one where the economy of sin and death has been replaced by life in Christ.
For Paul, when we are baptized, as Jesus was baptized, we join into his life, death, and resurrection. And if we are people who have been made victorious over death — as Jesus was — then our lives should reflect this. Our lives should shine as the new creation they are.
It might be helpful to think of it in this way — If I dip this new white shirt in a bowl of red die, it becomes a red shirt. It is no longer white. You do not refer to it any longer as the white shirt. The shirt has a new identity.
Baptism is like that. Christ accepts believers into his very being. Most especially, Christ accepts us into everything about his being — into his most unique and powerful action. The baptized are changed, then, not by acquiescing to a powerful agent of God who has come to set up a new regime that we must obey. Rather, the baptized are changed by sharing in the action that won the victory over sin and death. They are not a white shirt following a certain set of rules — they are a red shirt fully dripping in and participating through God’s grace.
There is something profoundly inclusive about this. It is not the way of a powerful control freak who sets everything right and then calls the shots. It is the way of love. God respectfully and lovingly offers us the opportunity to share in the very thing that sets us free. We are participants in the act of victory, not simply beneficiaries of what is done for us.
But if this is the truth then why then does the world continue to operate as it does? Why aren’t people living free? Why does the past still hold people captive? Why does addiction and obligation detain people from living free? Why is there a man gunning down his co-workers?
I worry that shame is a big reason we are unable to claim our space in the new world of grace. If we can’t acknowledge the way sin holds us in check because our shame keeps us from sharing this truth, how can we truly claim and live into the freedom of grace in our lives? The answer is: we can’t.
For at least a year now, a friend of mine has been suggesting that I read The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson. She thinks it is an incredible book that gets to the heart of what holds us back. This week she shared with me a portion of the book that is specifically prevalent to today’s reading.
The author writes, “Ultimately we become what we pay attention to, and the options available to us at anytime are myriad, the most important of which being located within us. Paul, in his letter to the Romans knows this, stating flatly, ‘Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace’ (Romans 8:5-6). To have one’s mind set on something is essentially about paying attention. What do I pay attention to? Paul says that what we pay attention to doubles back and governs us. Hence our attention is deeply associated with either death or life. So much of the biblical narrative is the story of God working hard to get our attention.”[iv]
My friend then recounted a story Thompson shared in his book. It is the story of a man who had an affair, and how the church community helped him claim new life.
The story begins with the pastor having the man share, in front of the congregation, what he had done. When my friend told me this I was shocked. Won’t this simply add to his shame? Also what about the wife? How did she feel about having a spotlight turned onto the struggles of their marriage? My friend smiled and told me she had a similar reaction at first, but later she realized the husband’s sin was silencing for the wife too. How was the wife supposed to get support if she couldn’t talk about what they were going through? How was her church going to love them through it?
All these questions and more were answered in the way the pastor led the congregation through the confession. You see after the man confessed his sin, the pastor turned to the congregation and read the biblical passage that describes adultery as Jesus sees it — looking at someone with lust. The pastor then invited anyone in the congregation who had looked with lust on someone to stand. When the man looked out on the congregation everyone was standing with him.
This is claiming the new world where sin and death have no power over us anymore. Where we can confess the truth and be restored and redeemed in community. Where we actively participate in God’s grace.
It takes courage and vulnerability to do this work. To call a thing a thing. To name the sin in our lives and place it before a community that could accept or reject us. That could stand with us or deny their own culpability to sin. But when these moments do happen — and they do happen — they are moments when we live in the context of resurrection. As Paul says, because we have died with Christ, the one who is free from sin, death no longer reigns over us. And just as Christ lives, so will we. Together with and through Christ we can — we will — we do — live resurrection lives. Let our resurrection light shine, so that others might live into it as well, and we see what the world becomes. Amen.
[i] Romans 5:20
[ii] Romans 6:1
[iii] Romans 6:2
[iv] Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015) 48.