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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
May 21, 2023
Most of you may have seen an episode of Shark Tank, the program for budding entrepreneurs. In one show, Belinda presented her new company, The Skinny Mirror which made specially-designed mirrors to help people look 10 pounds lighter. The intent was to help people feel better about themselves. The Sharks were shocked at the boldness of Belinda marketing a company based on lies and deception. But, in truth, this was simply a tissue sample of the human condition. We are saturated in a world of deceptions—to make a profit, to defend ourselves, to dismiss others, to elevate our status—all means to help us feel better and more empowered. And what’s worse is that we are the victims of our own self deception. Freud and Jesus agreed on this one diagnosis as we confess: “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” None of us is exempt. Make it more personal—“I deceive myself, and the truth is not in me.”
In our reading for today from Romans 6, St. Paul attacks how we deceive ourselves. In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul unpacks with power, as Luther said, “truly the purest Gospel” of our freedom in Christ. However, Paul is now agitated that the Christian community is drifting, giving the required nod to God, but redirecting much more energy toward other matters, even good matters. There are many things in this world that can allure us and command our devotion, including our passion with our work in the world, our serving, our social action. We like things that are practical and productive.
Churches can be misled in this way. Over time, we gloss over our human brokenness, the power of God’s grace to restore, the dynamic movement of the Spirit in all the nooks and crannies of our lives. Slowly our deeds and desires to reform everything become the main show. The fruits of faith begin to overshadow the roots of faith. It’s all so subtle and so dangerous. Quietly, the church’s key ethic becomes this: Christ came to teach love while motivating us to be better people in the world. This is no different than the mantra of many prophets and the theme of many groups. This is old news—ethics with a small dose of religion. The shock of the Gospel is that Christ did not come to make us good people, but to raise us from the dead. When we think well of ourselves, we don’t need the Gospel which is deeper and surgical—life breaking and life changing, dying and rising. Paul is agitated that the fire of the Gospel is getting lost in the smoke of our agendas. So, here in Romans 6, Paul is driven to correct this drift. He dives deep into the roots of the Gospel, presenting what might be called an Overture of the Christian life. I have outlined four core themes: Residence, Recognition, Replacement, Resurrection. No surprise, these are also the themes in our baptismal liturgy.
Residence: One of our biggest deceptions is that we own our lives. We do not. But we try to claim title to our lives—building them, strengthening them, protecting them from fraud and thieves, beautifying them, empowering them. However, from the first day of everything, from the first breath that opened your eyes to the world before you, you did not own your life. God’s word brought you into existence. God’s gifts have sustained you life long. God’s grace has delivered you from the shadows of hopelessness. God’s mercy has mended broken relationships. And God’s love will catch you as you fall from the cliff of death into God’s loving arms. How can we miss this? God is the true owner and author of our lives, our true home, our true residence.
Marian Wright Edelmann writes, “You were born God’s original. Don’t become someone’s copy.” How easy is it for us to become copies of so many other things. Corrie Ten Boom, the holocaust survivor from Holland, in the midst of a world with homes erased by Nazi atrocities, defined her true home clearly: “Lord Jesus,” she said, “ I belong to you lock, stock, and barrel,” A to Z, all of me. When God is our true home, our secure residence, each day begins with the prayer that we might have the desire to desires the desires of God. This is true stewardship when each day begins with thanksgiving that we are residents in the home of God and our prime job is to be grounded and guided by the Spirit God unleashes. When we forget this, we become squatters not stewards in God’s home, taking what is not ours for our own passions and purposes. We forget our home address, and venture forth into our own lands life long, suffering the disease of homesickness and not knowing why we are sick. Come back home. Allow your restlessness to rest in the residence of God’s home. The true destination of grace is to bring us back home to where we belong, where we began, and where we are truly blessed.
Recognition: We do so much to look good. But the Gospel has other ideas. The Gospel shines a laser light into our hearts, and it ain’t pretty. Fred Buechner writes that “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” Tim Keller, the well known pastor from New York City, who died this week, underscored this in a sermon on grace: “We are more flawed in ourselves than we ever dared to believe!” If you want a church that promotes feeling good and self- improvement, don’t read the Gospel. What do we see under the CAT scan of the Gospel? Sure, there are positives. Yes, there are foibles and failings. But Paul dives deeper into our human condition. Something much bigger is at work when Paul uses words like “dying” and “rising”. Band aids won’t do in the CAT scan of the Gospel. “Dying” and “rising” call for major surgery. Notice Paul uses the word “sin” to diagnose us. This word “sin” usually refers to eating fatty deserts and is also rarely used in the church these days because it’s not a “feel good” idea. People get upset with downers. But for Paul, it’s not just a bunch of sins that is the problem. In a skin exam, we may want to talk about a mole here and there. Paul says, sit down. It’s worse. It’s metastatic. Your sin has metastasized. Your whole self is under siege. When Paul says that sin has “dominion” over us, it is a dominating diagnosis. We are ruled by other forces, subjects of other kingdoms, prisoners of other passions. You are the problem, not your sins. Even worse, we minimize this problem, putting it in softer language like “Christ died for our sins” and that’s that. Christ picked up the tab, so let’s get on with it. The power of grace fades in this world.
Luther defined sin as “misplaced trust”—diluting the penetrating power of the Gospel while inflating our own self- reliance. Misplaced trust. To put this in auto accident language—we thought we had to just deal with fender benders, but now we’re told the car has been “totalled” and the car is us. We delude ourselves, thinking we are much more capable than we are. So let’s just learn lessons about loving from Jesus and get to work. This is a drastic, superficial misreading of our human condition. Don’t we confess in our liturgy, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”? One of Luther’s greatest works was “On the Bondage of the Will” in 1525 where he argued that we cannot by our own wisdom and will choose between good and evil, that we are dominated by obstructions. This shocked the “can do” spirit of the humanist focused Renaissance in his time. Same thing in our time—we can’t stand such a low view of human capability. Paul knew about the power of sin to have dominion. He had a good resume—learned rabbi, wise, respected…but he also was a persecutor of Christians, authorizing executions, seizing men and women from their homes and imprisoning them. This was a good man doing what he thought were good things. His conversion on the Damascus road shattered his self reliance and brought him face to face with God’s enormous grace. But even then, he continued to struggle. As much as he tried to do the good, his will was insufficient. In Romans 7, he says “the good I want to do, I don’t do.” There is a war within me. Doesn’t this sound familiar—our unending internal wars? So, he cries out in desperation, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He needs something big enough to “deliver” him. The Gospel comes with us into the depths where we don’t want to go, and opens us up to a world that we thought could never be.
Replacement: It is clear that that the Gospel is not about repair, it is about replacement. If you get a simple antibiotic in the ER when you really need emergency, open surgery, you will die. It’s that serious. When we have been “totalled”, we will not be saved by a “touch up.” Paul says that we must die to ourselves because our old life is deeply broken, too broken to “put all the pieces together again” to quote a nursery rhyme. But our dying to ourselves is not a death alone. “Dying with Christ” is the drama of baptism and the power of the Christian life…daily dying, not one and done…daily dying..because the dominion of sin is that invasive and cancerous. But as deep as our dying must be, the love of Christ, the healing of Christ, the forgiveness of Christ is even deeper. The love of God is the power that frees us to surrender our full selves that we might daily “die with Christ.” And this is not a one-way trip. Paul writes we also will “rise with Christ.” His death is ours. His resurrection is ours. His power is ours. His love is ours. His future is ours.
Paul captures the essence of the Gospel with the words “in Christ” which he uses multiple times in our reading. The words “in Christ” appear 242 times in the New Testament. The word “Christian” appears only twice. In all of Paul’s writings, he really doesn’t say much about the life of Jesus at all because his entire focus in on “being in Christ,” It’s not about liking Christ or learning how to love from Christ or believing in Christ. It’s about “being in Christ.” The Greek word for “in” that Paul uses here is “eis”. The other word for “in” is “en.” The difference? “En” has the sense of standing outside and believing “in” Christ. Yes, we believe in Christ. But for Paul, this is not it. He uses the word “eis” which is about a relationship “into” Christ, evoking a sense of intimacy, of union, of being united. And “eis” also means “becoming the possession of” and “coming under the protection of.” This is powerful statement of the transfer of our identity from self to Christ. And this transfer is the core of our transformation—nothing else will do except replacement.
Paul in Galatians writes, “I live, but its not me, its Christ who lives in me.” Oswald Chambers notes–You cannot pray “Christ for me” unless you also pray, “Christ in me.” When you see a cathedral from the outside, the windows typically look unattractive, maybe even dull and gray. But when you enter the cathedral and gaze toward the skies and the stained glass windows, everything lights up in brilliant, bright, stunning colors full of electrifying stories. Being in Christ grabs us from the outside and catapults us inside the cathedral where the world lights up.
If you think, “I can’t do this.” You’re right. You can’t. This whole drama of the Christian life is well beyond our wisdom, will, and skill. Our hands are tied, our will is weak, our wisdom is imprisoned, our hearts are selfish. Luther stated that “we cannot by our own reason or strength” receive any of this. The question is not how to work harder—that is a dead end. The only useful question is will you allow God to invade your life so that the Spirit can drill down and work? The life of worship unpacks the gifts of the Spirit in our prayers, hymns, readings, our sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, the many writings from the faithful saints through history. When are eyes are open to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to receive, our minds to believe, our bodies to perceive, and our souls to conceive—when all these receptor sites are turned on—who knows what we will experience as the Spirit of God works on us.
Resurrection. The open tomb of Easter is not just a feel good story, but it is the anchor for God’s power and promise, God’s definitive declaration that that death in all its forms—our final death and the many deaths we face life-long—all these deaths come under the authority of God’s promise and love. The resurrection shouts loud that “the love of God is stronger than the deepest darkness.” John Updike’s magnificent poem, “Seven Stanzas for Easter” is a packed with power in grounding us all in the reality, the materiality, the might, the strength, the monstrous miracle of it all. This open tomb not only will meet us at the end of our days, but meets us fresh each morning. It has been said that each day is one resurrection after another. Greet each morning with this prayer: “Today we pray in so many ways that the stones of our tombs will be rolled away.” The graves of our lives can be many—the broken relationships, the many addictions, the deep losses, the shocks of life that turn us upside down…and the stones sealing us in our graves are too much for us. But the power of the Gospel and the promise of the resurrection equip us so we might proclaim with confidence and pray with boldness, “Today we pray in so many ways that the stones of our tombs will be rolled away.” May all this be truly true with you. In the name of Jesus. Amen.