By Rev. Chris Alexander
September 30, 2012
12Therefore, 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— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the trespass. 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. 16And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17If, 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. 18Therefore 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. 19For 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. 20But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is the final week of our series “Failing, Falling, Flying: Genesis Stories of Original Grace. We have looked at the two creation stories, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, all of which come from the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Today we look to the New Testament, and the letter of Paul to the Romans, to hear a similar story of God’s grace and steadfast love running deeper than our human tendency to turn away from God, and rely on our own abilities, for bringing us into the fullness of living.
In these origin stories from Israel, we hear a people trying to make sense of the stories they have heard from their tradition, and from the world in which they presently live. Whether they are writing in the time of exile, or in times of greatest prosperity, during the combined monarchies, they are trying to reconcile what they are actually experiencing, with the questions who they are, how they relate to the God who has always been with them, and to the others around them who are telling different stories.
In Genesis One, and in Genesis Two and Three, we have two accounts of creation, that told separately would not convey the whole story of what they believed about their God, and how humanity and creation are in relationship with God. Each of these stories was written from the perspective of their lived experience. Genesis One, written during their captivity, speaks to a liberating God who is continually creating in goodness, with humanity as the co-creators being called to be fruitful and multiply. The second story was written during the time of their highest prosperity and warns humanity that when we listen to voices other than God’s, and start to think more about ourselves than God, life gets hard. This story introduces the inevitability of our mistakes, but warns us not to hide from God in our shame, but rather claim our mistakes, and trust that God’s love and forgiveness is bigger than our ability to mess things up.
These stories, taken together, reflect both, humanity’s capacity to fail and fall, as well as God’s intention to include humanity in the will and purpose of creation, which continually creates new possibilities that allow us to fly.
Hearing from these creation stories that humankind is neither compelled to pursue sainthood, nor doomed only to sin, we see that the choices we make are what form our character and shape our lives. The story of Cain and Abel tells us that the most important choices we make are not between good and evil, but whether or not we trust God, even after we have made a mistake or have been unfaithful. The choice becomes, will we surrender to the healing power of God’s love and grace, or will we turn from God, relying on our own abilities to try and make things whole again? The mark of Cain, rather than being an ongoing punishment for disobedience, instead is the sign of an ongoing relationship with God, that reconciles us with creation, allowing Cain, and all humanity, to transform what could be a curse, into a creative existence once again. Left to ourselves, the Hebrew’s remind us, we will inevitably make the destructive choice. The Good News in this story then, is that God chooses too, and has promised never to abandon us to our own devises. Together, in relationship with God, barren soil, a consequence of our destructive choices, can be transformed to bring forth new life, in a new way.
The story of Noah and the Flood, that follows next, has Israel asking once again, “How could a loving, creating God, destroy every living creature on earth?” Once again the Hebrews barrow a story from the Babylonian culture which enslaves them, and make it their own, by showing that it is God’s goodness and refusal to give up on creation, even when it turns to violence and destruction rather than the creative activity to which it is called, restores wholeness and the promise of new beginnings in our world. Noah’s story tells us that we can trust God. God is not One who uses violence to solve problems, but uses love, and that whatever happens as a result of your trust in God, it will be for your benefit and blessing, not for your harm. God is constantly washing away whatever is blocking us from a new way of being in the world.
And last week, through the story of the people of Babel, the Hebrews remind us that fully trusting in God to bring about new beginnings and restoring life to its fullest expression, means letting go of our delusions that strong, stable buildings, uniformity, and self sufficiency, will make us worthy in God’s eyes, and thus ensure our relationship with God. Like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, we are once again reminded that God’s love for creation is solely dependent on God’s worthiness, not our own. Living what appears to be a “scattered” existence through diversity of language and thought, actually expands the continual creating acts of God in the world, rather than limiting them. In our “scattering,” we are aware that it is God, alone, who embraces us wherever we are, unifying creation, and bringing us to abundant life.
These origin stories show us a common pattern of humanity failing and falling, while God is constantly restoring our ability to fly. This pattern is the tradition we bring with us, as we address our own questions of creation and our relationship to God. So, as Christians, where does Jesus fit into this tradition? What does Jesus have to do with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the People of Babel?
As we turn to the New Testament of our tradition, we have Paul, telling the same story of humanity’s inevitable failing and falling, and God restoring our ability to fly, only Paul’s story tells us about God’s creative action through Jesus and the cross. Because this story fits together with the pattern we see in the origin stories, we can see that God didn’t dream up this reconciling activity in the world with Jesus – It was always the point. And by holding these stories together in the tradition, we see that what Jesus does on the cross is far more wonderful than we even imagined.
Paul is a Jew who understands the traditions of exile and God’s faithfulness. He is writing to the community at Rome in order to address the same questions that the Hebrews were asking in their own exile experience. In fact he uses the image of Adam from these origin stories to make his point. He explains our relationship with God by holding the image of Adam together with the image of Jesus, revealing both, humanity’s tendency to turn away from our trust in God’s healing grace and the ability within our relationship with God to trust God and act in righteousness (relationship) to God, allowing for life abundant. In verse 18 Paul describes this nature of sin and blessing this way: “18Therefore 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.”
Paul is referring here to the eternal quality of relationship with God. This idea of eternal is often confusing for us when we read Paul’s writings since much of the time we interpret this concept in it’s future oriented sense of meaning “never ending,” rather than realizing that eternal is a concept that stands altogether outside of our understanding of time. To be eternal means that something encompasses all of time, our pasts, our presents, as well as our futures, and has it being outside the limits of time. So to say that Jesus shows us that our relationship to God “leads us into eternal life,” Paul is saying that our relationship with God was inherent in creation, continues with us in our present, and will continue even beyond our death. Eternity is not a destination, nor a final goal, it is a state of being.
In verse 20, Paul switches the conversation from the juxtaposition of Adam and Jesus, to a discussion of law and grace, “20But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” With the law, humanity stands accused of their failing and falling, and are held accountable, because we are made aware of our failures through the law. But the law, and our awareness of our sin, never stands alone, it always stands within the nature of God’s grace, which “abounds all the more.”
And then in verse 21 Paul addresses the consequence of both law and grace in his discussion on death and eternal life. He writes, “21so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” If left on our own, our failures would define us, and death would be the natural consequence for humanity. But, Paul says, though we are marked by our sin, we are defined by God’s love for us, and grace wins, even over death. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the definitive sign that reveals this promise of God in creation. Humanity never stands alone; we are always, and inherently, in relation to God, and God’s insatiable desire to be with us.
For Paul, this whole process of failing, falling, and flying is called justification, and this process is not a one time event, rather it is a continual way of being in creation, a continual way of living eternally in relationship with God.
Within the whole of the tradition then, the event of Jesus removes any doubt that God’s response to humanity is love, not violence or punishment. And in our conversation with the origin stories and Paul’s witness to Jesus, we have dug around our former notions of original sin and unearthed some new understandings about who we are, and how we relate to God. In this revelation we can see that this whole idea of God torturing us in everlasting fire as punishment for our disobedience, can never stand up. This idea has never been part of either the Jewish or the Christian story. Instead, the cross and the empty tomb reveal that God is eternally working to reconcile, redeem, heal, and save us. God was with us when we failed the first time, when we failed Jesus, when we fail now, and will be with us when we fail in the future. Failing and falling are “the given” in these stories, but they are not the whole story. Another “given,” in fact, the point of it all, is that God loves us and will not give up on us.
So, why are we still running and hiding from God, when God has shown us over and over again that every time we fail and fall, God will help us fly again? These origin stories, culminating in the story of Jesus and the cross, show us a different way of being in the world, a way of life that allows humanity to continually co-create with God, opening possibilities beyond our imaginations, all of which are embraced in the eternal, never failing, love of God. For Paul, salvation is not something that Jesus does, but is something that Jesus most fully reveals. Participating in this revelation means discovering the eternal nature of Gods love and will for creation, and determining to live your life in relationship to it.
So, in listening to these stories and rethinking who we are in relationship to God, how might you define salvation, and by which way of life are you called?