On this Memorial Day weekend, as we reflect and remember as a nation the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for our freedom in America, we come together in worship today to reflect and remember the Son of God, who gave his life for the forgiveness of our sins. Truly, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
We are continuing in our examination of the Apostles’ Creed, which is one of our primary affirmations of faith. We have professed and claimed belief in the trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have professed and claimed our belief in the universal church and the communion of saints.
Today, we turn to our profession and state our belief in the forgiveness of sin.
As we have noted over the past month, in our profession of faith – in our confession to believe – we are not simply stating some head knowledge of scriptural truth. Our reciting and professing faith, individually or corporately, is not simply about the words we speak. Our claim to believe is about our risky acceptance of truth that leads us into action.
To help us claim belief in the forgiveness of sin, and to give us some direction on how such a faith statement leads us into action, we turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans.
As with any reading in our Holy Scripture, to fully understand what the passage has to offer, it helps to be aware of the context in which the text was first written. The letter was written to the community of faith that had formed and was meeting in the area of Rome. The community of believers in the Roman church was quite diverse. There were Jewish converts to Christianity who still held the Torah – the full Jewish law – as significant for the life of a Christ professing believer.
Another large group in the Roman church was the Gentile Christians. The Gentiles had never had faith in God prior to converting to Christianity. They did not see the Jewish law as important – perhaps because they had not previously held any belief in the Jewish law. The ancient law for them, was not a prerequisite for faith.
And then there was likely a mixed group of Jewish Converts and Gentile Christians who held that some of the ancient Jewish law was important, while claiming that other parts were inapplicable due to the differences in culture and context as time had passed.
As these three groups tried to find a common sense of faith community, it was clear there were discrepancies in their understanding of the role the ancient Jewish law would play in the new foundation of faith, which centered on Christ as Lord. The argument around which laws to include and exclude became a great debate. For the community trying to perfect their faith, to claim more laws as foundational made it easier to prove someone was in error because there were more possible laws to compare their actions against. To lessen the number of laws on the books make it more difficult to claim another as in error because there were less specific laws to be broken.
As most of the Epistle letters are, the letter to the Romans was offered by Paul to help address the concerns of the faith community. Romans, perhaps more so than any of the letters Paul wrote, is very theological in nature – less practical, and more philosophical. Knowing the diversity in thought regarding the law and its connection to sin, Paul offers this passage in chapter 5. Beginning with verse 12, Paul says, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” Paul is using the ancient mathematical principle of deductive reasoning. If death is the result of sin, and all of humanity dies, then all of humanity must be affected by sin.[i] That sin, that has affected us all and leads us all to death, is the result of one man – Adam.
What God created as good in the beginning, what was created in the image of God, has been flawed by sin. And that sin now claims all of humanity.
To help clarify what he means when he says “we are affected by sin,” Paul continues in verse 13 and 14, ‘sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not recognized where there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses.” Remember, Moses is the one who brought the 10 Commandments from God down to the people. Moses presented the law of God to the people. Yet Moses, and all of Moses’ predecessors, still died. Their death, as Paul states it, was the result of sin. Thus, sin existed prior to the law, proven by the fact that people died before the law was introduced.
Paul is saying to the community of faith, stop quarreling over what law you want to carry forth from the ancient history of the Jewish faith. Regardless of how much of the law you want to maintain to make it easier to identify sin, even without the law in place, sin still exists.
Sin for Paul was something much greater than our failure to keep individual commandments. Sin is not the mere result of breaking rules or covenantal laws, it is the power which seeks to keep us separated from the love of God. “Sin [and the resulting death] are not mere annoyances or particular flaws of human life; they are the central and ultimately destructive problem of our existence, in which human society is catastrophically trapped.” [ii]
Again, I name, this sin of which Paul speaks is that which seeks to keep us separated from the love of God. Sin should not be trivialized by claiming it is simply the result of breaking rules. Sin, as Paul explains it, is that which leads to death – meaning, anything that leads to death can be defined as sin. It is sin – this death hungry power – that leads us to consent as acceptable the desire to destroy others. It is sin that is foundational to war and shooting massacres. It is sin that encourages bullying, harassment, adultery, corruption, racism, life-taking weaponry, and hatred in any form. It is sin that seeks the destruction of us as individuals – trying to drive us further from believing in God’s love. It is sin that seeks the destruction of the whole of humanity. It is sin that tries to convince us that we have the right to take the life of another – physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
This sin is that which came into to the world through one man, who felt he could become the person of God. Let us make no mistake, the temptation to eat of the one forbidden fruit was not about man’s failure to keep the rule or law of God. The failure of humanity is about trying to trump God to claim the role of the most knowledgeable. The failure is thinking we can make better decisions for ourselves than to trust and obey the will of God.
With such rampant brokenness, and an irreversible stain of sin plaguing humanity, what hope have we then to move beyond our own destruction?
Paul goes on in verse 15, “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. … If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:15b, 17-19)
God didn’t simply come and try to undo our downfall, God found a way to overcome our downfall. God came in a way that demonstrated God’s mighty power and almighty love.
God’s act was far more powerful than that of sin. Sin is that which takes life. God gives life. God gives life to even those who have already lost their life.
God, in sending Christ to die for our sin, doesn’t provide for us some mediocre assistance; Christ comes and gives his life to save us from a mortal disease that is corrupting human society as a whole.[iii] By offering us grace and the forgiveness of sin in the death of Christ, God is not inviting us to simply live without worrying if we will sin – God is inviting us to live free of the power of sin. [iv]
Herein lies where our claim to believe becomes a risky acceptance of truth that must lead us into action. For how can we live free of the power of sin?
“Feeling guilty for personal shortcomings is not our deeper problem. The deeper problem consists in being caught in the effects of a rebellion against God, which we simply cannot overcome. … When sinners ‘try harder,’ they only produce more sin. The deeper element of self-examination is the need to repent of the feeling that by ‘trying harder’ we can effect reconciliation with God. That is simply another form of the temptation to ‘be like God’ that was the downfall of Eve and Adam. To realize finally we cannot deliver ourselves, no matter how sorry we may feel for past wrongs and how hard we may try to overcome them in the future, is ultimately the point of self-examination.”[v]
To claim “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is not simply to think God sent Christ to die for the petty wrongdoings of our lives. If sin were so easy to escape that it could be avoided with a little foresight, “it would hardly need God’s Son to die in order to break its power.”[vi] But this claim of “I believe” is an active claim – it is an acknowledgement and a promise that only by placing ourselves fully in the hands of God will we ever live into the life God has designed for us – for all humanity and creation. To claim we believe in the forgiveness of sin is a statement and owning up to our own failure – not simply our failure to keep each minor rule set before us, but our failure to appreciate our place as the created and God’s place as the Creator.
This is the call to profess our faith. It is a call to humble ourselves and to acknowledge that all that is broken in our own lives, all that is broken in our nation, all that is broken in the whole of creation is the result of our lack of subordinating ourselves before the Almighty. Our profession is not that we simply believe God can forgive our sin, it’s an acknowledgement that we have already received God’s forgiveness. Our profession is our acknowledgment of the place of God as the director and we as the faithful participants in God’s creation. And believing that through God’s forgiving love sin does not have the power, death does not win, we can go forth to live – live well – live faithfully – live humbly – live as God’s created image in the world. So may you go forth and live this day. Amen.