I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.
I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“
Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?
For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.
A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?
Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”
Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”
To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”
Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.
Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”
After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.
Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.
But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.
Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”
Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.
I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.
I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.
Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”
Okay. That’s true.
Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.
Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.
Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”
That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.
But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.
“Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”
And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-
the answer is ‘Yes.’
Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.
And so do I.
I stand condemned.
(And so do you.)
These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.
But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.
Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.
All have sinned.
Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.
No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.
All stand condemned.
The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.
In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.
Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.
It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.
Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.
Sin is instead the subject of verbs.
Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.
First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:
Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.
You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.
Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.
Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.
Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.
Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.
Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.
It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:
Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.
The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.
What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.
And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.
Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.
I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.
They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.
You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.
What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.
When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.
All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.
We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.
But we’re accomplices too.
We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.
We’re culpable too.
Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:
Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.
Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.
Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London
A Power that is not God has got us.
But we’re guilty too.
All of us. All stand condemned.
Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.
Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all.
During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.
But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.
Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.
Disciplines we use to connect to God.
But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”
The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’
Yes, you stand condemned.
And so do I.
As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.
But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.
Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all.
In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’
That’s good news.
But it’s only part of it.
The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.
It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.
Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.
“Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.
Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.
It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.
Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.
The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.
The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.
And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.
You will never be a new you on your own.
On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.
Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.
Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:
You can be re-made.
Not just forgiven but set free.
Not only justified but rectified.
Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.
But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.
Jesus Christ our Lord.