Sin

The Pain of Knowing

Romans 7:7-13 (NLT)

Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.

But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes.


 

We’ve been hearing a lot about the law, specifically God’s law given to the Jews, the last couple of weeks. Paul doesn’t always seem to be talking about the law in a positive way. But let’s go ahead and get on the same page with him: The law is holy, a representation of God’s will.

The problem is not the law. The problem, Paul is saying, is us. Sin, which seems to have the characteristics of a person in Paul’s writings, is clever and always finds a way to trick us. From the time we are born, and certainly from the time we first commit sins, we simply are too broken, too weak, for Satan and his minions not to find a way in.

The law’s primary role is to educate. Without God’s teachings handed down through history, we would have trouble distinguishing what is sinful from what is good, sort of the way we had trouble telling a noun from a pronoun until a good elementary school teacher explained the difference.

Paul also reminds us of a simple theological fact. Sin, Satan, demons and anything else we associate with deep, pure evil cannot create. Only God can create; even the most evil spiritual beings were created by God, becoming evil only because they were given free will and chose to turn against what made them.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a collection of correspondence—fictional, of course—from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood, regarding how to ensure a human soul ends up in Hell. Here, Screwtape speaks disparagingly of God as Creator, as you would expect a demon to do.

“He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without his minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.”

In other words, God offers us the good life. Yes, the law is often couched in what we think of as “shalt nots,” but let’s consider the positives in drawing bright line boundaries around certain behaviors. We can do this by looking at the core of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments. Let’s hear them King James style:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But of course, what this implies is we are invited to a special relationship with the only God who matters.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Look at it this way: There is something more than the stuff around us. There is a great being to worship, a being so great that he cannot be reduced to any object in the universe!
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Using the name of a god amounted to magic tricks; somehow, the god had to be manipulated for people to receive goodness from the god. But not Yahweh, not our God—he pours out love and grace, no magic tricks required.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Our God seeks rest for us and relationship with us.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Our God also wants us to maintain what should be, in a properly behaving family, our closest relationships, just as we maintain our relationship with God.
  6. Thou shalt not kill. Under God, we are invited to live in a society where we are not in danger of losing the greatest possession we have in this world, our lives.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Through marriage, a man and a woman are invited to a unique relationship, one built on a lifetime of trust. In many ways, we are invited to reflect in our marriages the relationship between God and humanity.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Again, this is about the abundant godly society to which we are invited. We should never fear not having enough because someone has taken what is rightfully ours.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. In this godly society, truth should win out whenever justice is at stake.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. In giving up a desire for what other people have, we are invited to live lives of contentment, knowing the God whom we worship will provide for all our needs.

In a sense, the Ten Commandments were designed to do what the single commandment of Eden did. There, the One Commandment was, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” We are being taught by the Creator that with proper boundaries, Paradise is available.

But still, there’s that disconnect, our inability to live up to, or maybe we should say, live into the law God has offered us. What do we do?

Well, in this Easter season, we’re back to our core gospel message, a message Paul has already taken us through early in Romans. God saw that while the law educates us, it could not save us. We could not simply follow it and somehow become holy.

So God sent his son. We call him Jesus. The Son also educated us, helping us to better understand the deeper aspects of God’s will.

And then, he committed the great act of submission, allowing his perfect, holy self to be crucified in our place. His death freed us from the grip of sin and Satan. The resurrection proves the victory.

Believe, and know that in believing, we now have power to grow and become the kind of people we were made to be, holy and living out God’s will in ways we never imagined possible under a system of laws.

Sinning After Salvation

Romans 6:1-14 (NLT)

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.


I suppose I should give up theft, as Paul says we should not keep on sinning. But I’m stealing this morning from a great preacher named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who in the 1960’s gave us a very useful analogy to help us understand what Paul is saying in today’s text. I want us to meditate awhile on the image Lloyd-Jones offers.

Imagine two fields separated by high rock walls, typical of fields in Lloyd-Jones’ Wales. Or, for our context, we could say “separated by barbed wire,” as that is what surrounds most of our fields here in Tennessee. The point is, you are born in one field and you cannot get out on your own.

In that field, you have a master, Satan, and feeling obligated to respond to Satan’s voice, you sin. Of course you do. You were born in his field, and you really know nothing else.

Now, here’s the great miracle. Through Christ, God comes along and plucks you up from one field, setting you down in the adjacent field, the field God controls. Satan, who for many good reasons is terrified of God, will not move from one field to another to regain control over you. You are free!

You also are new to this field. In terms of behavior, all you really know for sure is life in the old field, a life of sin. Now, Satan won’t cross into the new field to get you, but he knows you. You were born in his field. He trained you to his commands.

And, being the kind of determined fallen angel who never wants to let go, Satan calls out commands over the divide between your old life and your new life, hoping you will obey. You are in a new field, but you find yourself committing some of the same sins that were part of your old life.

“Ah, I hate that,” you say to yourself, cringing in the after-effects of your sin. “Why do I do that? I’m in this beautiful new field!”

Or to quote something we’re going to hear Paul say in the seventh chapter of Romans: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

This is our situation as Christians. We accept Christ, we know we are accepted, and yet, we continue to defy, at least from time to time, the one who has gone to such great lengths to rescue us from sin.

Here’s another analogy for those of us who grew up rural: You can scrub the pig up all nice and shiny for the county fair, but if you don’t watch the chubby porker closely, he’ll wallow in the mud the first chance he gets. It’s what the pig is used to doing. (For those of you not from the country, the verb is pronounced “waller.”)

The solution to the problem, or at least the beginning of the solution, is to hear again what I said earlier: You are free!

Satan no longer has a hold on you, thanks be to Jesus Christ and the cross on which Christ died. You don’t have to listen to Satan’s voice. You can tune Satan out, with no repercussions.

Yes, you really have the power! People are often shocked to learn that the devil cannot make you do it, whatever “it” may be.

When Satan issues his old commands, it’s okay to put your hands over your ears and say, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening … .”

Look around you. Look at the glory of your new field. There is a new voice in this new field. It’s … it’s strange, at first. In a worldly sense, the old voice could sound wise and even beautiful, but it kept hurting you, right?

Would any of you disagree that the old voice kept leading us down paths of sin, and that ultimately, sin hurts, even if it initially seems like a good idea?

The new voice is different, though. The voice of Christ calls us to peace. The voice of Christ tells us, “Fear not,” while the old voice ran his field on fear—fear of not measuring up, fear of finishing last, fear of running out, fear of aging, fear of loss, fear after fear after fear.

The voice of Christ calls us toward a kind of beauty that is otherworldly, that never fades. Everything the old voice offered you looks cheap and dangerous compared to what we are offered in this new field.

Oh, it just struck me—some of you considering what I’m saying today may still be in the old field. Guess what, even from there you can hear Christ calling you to a better place, a better way of living now. All you have to do is call out, “Save me!” and you’ll be lifted into the new field.

Once we’re in the new field, we have to do something very important. We have to move away from the old field, away from the divide. Run from your old owner. Run deeper into the new field so it’s harder to hear his voice.

Recovering addicts and reformed criminals know exactly what I’m talking about. What’s the first big rule when you start a new life? Avoid the people who are part of your old life. Through your old friends, you will hear Satan’s voice calling you back. Stay away from anything that may be a conduit for Satan’s old call.

Eventually, you may be strong enough to run and jump in the new field and call over the divide, telling the others the way out of the field of sin. “Hear a different voice!” you’ll cry out.

I had a friend several years ago who worked with people who struggled with the same kinds of addictions she had once suffered. She estimated a person needed to be clean of a particular sin at least ten years before trying to help people with similar sins. The siren call of Satan is too strong early on, she said, despite the fact we are free.

There is more to the Christian life than simply running from Satan’s voice. It’s important you know that. Oh, there is so much more. This is a rich, beautiful field, one we explore with great excitement now and for all eternity.

There are ideas and experiences here to give us great joy. That is what we will talk about next week: how to explore the field, how to move deeper into it, how to truly experience our new home.

Until then, stay away from the fence.

Triumph Over Sin and Death

Romans 5:12-21 (NLT)

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


He is risen!

It is our great declaration, one usually made in our sanctuaries on Easter Sunday. At our Easter egg hunt Saturday, I asked the gathered crowd if anyone knew why Easter is important. One child said, “We look for Easter eggs!”

Well, no. We do that for fun, but that’s not the core meaning of the Easter celebration. Then a second voice called out, “Jesus rose from the dead!” That little guy got a high-five.

He is risen; Jesus was dead, killed in a most brutal manner, and then he was alive, is alive!

Even if you’ve heard the story before, I’ll bet you would like to hear it again. Every gospel has its version. Let’s look at how the Gospel of Luke tells the story. [Blog readers: You might want to take time to read Luke 24:1-12 reverently and attentively, as if hearing it for the first time.]

Do you hear it? Do you hear the astonishment of those first witnesses? The women, the faithful women, the ones who did not run away, who tried to attend to Jesus even in death, were the first witnesses, hearing the pronouncement of angels that he is risen.

We are told the men, the ones who had run in fear, the ones who had betrayed Jesus, thought it all sounded like nonsense. Jesus began to appear, however, to followers on the road to Emmaus, to the core disciples as they continued to cower, and to many, many others.

He showed them his scars. He showed them the crucifixion was real—his death was real. But I have defeated death, he was saying with his presence.

Our text from Romans emphasizes this great truth. “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Think of it this way: We were born to sin. You may not like the idea—you might find it unfair—but if you believe God uses the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to reveal great truths, then you cannot deny it. Somehow, that first break with God, recounted in Genesis 3, broke all of us. If we live to an age where we become at all conscious of our actions, we cannot avoid offending God.

Because we were born to sin, we also were born to die. Paul seems to talk about death in a couple of ways. There is the death of the body, of course, a death that may come quickly because of our inherent fragility, or slowly because of inescapable decrepitude. But worse than that, there is a spiritual death, an inability to connect with God, to ever deserve God’s love, because our sin has made us unholy.

But don’t forget the key message today: He is risen! Paul presents Christ as victor, as the one who dove into death and defeated it from within. A righteous man dying not only destroys death, he makes possible eternal life.

This is relatively simple stuff. As church-going Christians, we can discuss ideas that are a lot more complicated. We’ve already had to do that some as we have made our way deeper into the book of Romans the past three months. But at its core, Christianity is simple.

The cross—it worked! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—it proves the cross worked! Believe, and the resurrection is yours!

There are two kinds of people in Easter Sunday worship. Many of you came because you believe, and you want to celebrate the great truth of Christianity, the truth that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death. Hallelujah! I pray your hearts are leaping!

Some of you are here reluctantly. You came to make someone happy; you came out of a sense of obligation, it being Easter Sunday. If that’s you, I need you to listen to me:

GOD LOVES YOU. He loves you so much that he walked among his creation in flesh and died on the cross for your sins. He loves you so much that he suffered as a human and died as a human, feeling everything we feel, so that sin has no hold on you and you can have eternal life with him.

My words alone may not be enough to convince you. But these stories, these very old stories, have very new life in them. You likely sense the life in them touching your soul right now.

Know that today, you can live the story. Know that today, Christ’s triumph is your triumph!

Sinners, Part Two

Romans 2:1-16 (NLT)

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.


Well, I warned you last week that Paul’s discussion of sinners, including some very specific descriptions of particular sins, was a set-up. It’s easy to think of sinners as “them,” as in “those sinners,” those people we like to pretend are somehow worse.

We should never get too big for our britches, though, no matter how good we may think we are. We are the sinners. And sinners shouldn’t be in the business of judging other sinners.

When we judge, we are doing something even angels fear to do. If you don’t believe me, look at Jude 1:9. It references a story we find nowhere else in established Scripture, a story about the archangel Michael contending with Satan for Moses’ body. Why Satan wanted Moses’ body, we don’t know—Jude likely is quoting from a story in Jewish tradition. But for whatever reason, Satan was after the body, and Michael was sent to claim it for God.

Jude says, however, that “even Michael, one of the mightiest angels, did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

Only the perfect Creator, the being who makes the rules, is qualified to judge. Others who attempt to say certain people are unworthy of God have crossed a dangerous line, assuming we believe God’s loyal angels are generally wise, prudent beings.

Clean up your own house, Paul is saying. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

I will long remember the man and woman in a Sunday school class several years ago who asked me what could be done about homosexuality and its effect on the larger church. She was a young single woman; he was an older married man. They were quite worked up about the issue.

I did not find out until more than a year later that they were having an extramarital affair at the time they asked me the question. I walked around for a couple of days thinking, “Really? In their minds, the homosexuals were the problem? Really?”

Again, clean up your own house.

I also once witnessed the terrible effect large-scale judgment can have on a church. A church about the size of Luminary had two women visitors who began to attend regularly. Word quickly spread the women were known to be lesbians.

The pastor told me how matters developed from there. He said the women simply sat in church, never showing any displays of affection for each other. They just wanted to worship, to pray, to hear from God. But because of the allegations about their sexuality, people became more and more incensed at their presence.

The pastor, I think, did everything right. He stuck to the current, doctrinally sound Methodist line: Everyone is welcome in worship. Everyone. It doesn’t matter what your sins are, you are welcome.

And certainly, he did not ask the women to leave. After all, if we start throwing out everyone suspected of sin, churches will be empty pretty fast.

His gracious manner didn’t help, though. People were too worked up, too—judgmental. A significant number of members upped and left, saying they wouldn’t be in the same room with those sinners. The angry exodus of people and money soon prevented the church from being able to employ a full-time ordained elder as pastor.

As I am prone to say when dealing with touchy subjects, I do have to be careful here. As Paul makes clear in last week’s text, there are specific sins listed in the Bible. Homosexuality is one of them, although it is hardly the only one listed. We are called to faithfully teach and preach what Scripture reveals.

Sometimes, when we teach and preach regarding what the Bible calls sin, we are accused of being judgmental. That label is terribly unfair to people who simply are using Scripture as the basis for understanding God’s will, continuing the work the church has done for almost 1,984 years.

Our need to preach and teach truth as revealed in the Holy Bible and our simultaneous biblically based need to avoid being judgmental places preachers and teachers in a difficult position. We must constantly balance the two requirements.

I think the United Methodist Church is a special place right now in the kingdom of God. In our Book of Discipline, the place where we state our doctrine and practices, how we achieve that balance is clearly defined.

The Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating homosexual marriages, and it prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” These prohibitions exist for a simple reason: The church cannot affirm ongoing, unrepentant sin.

These prohibitions are balanced with a large measure of grace, however. Here is a portion of what the Discipline says about sexuality in the section on Social Principles:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

I like these words. In them, we have already achieved a middle ground so desperately needed in other parts of the global church. In this statement, we see a rejection of sin combined with a clear declaration of the power of grace.

Unfortunately, like people in so many other places in our world, we in church are increasingly polarized.

At one extreme, some people want church without Scripture, or without the more difficult portions of the Bible, anyway. They find God’s call to holiness too demanding. Let me ask you this: If we don’t have the Bible, or if we chip away at the parts we don’t like, what is the basis for our beliefs? In time, church would become little more than a civic club with a nice steeple.

At the other extreme, some are quick to condemn those they see as lesser followers of God. In their hands church becomes an unpleasant, mean place, a poor location for experiencing God’s grace.

Neither kind of church is fully God’s church. We can do better. In fact, I would argue we have already done better. We as United Methodists simply need to learn to live out what is already written in the Bible and reflected in our Discipline.

Perhaps when the real judgment comes—the judgment meted out by God—our ability to pursue holiness while offering grace will help identify us as followers of the risen Christ.

Sinners, Part One

Romans 1:18-32 (NLT)

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.


We now move into a part of Romans where Paul, having described his desire to visit the church in Rome and his love of the Good News, turns to a darker subject. This is a meditation on the nature of sin.

In some ways, we also are being set up, just as Paul’s first audience was set up.

Paul begins with a simple assertion. Speaking of sinners in the third person, he says even they should be able to see evidence of God, which is revealed in God’s creation. You Luminary UMC folks know what Paul is talking about. When I ask during prayer time, “Where have you seen God,” you regularly praise the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, or the glory you have seen while hiking or boating.

Because sinners on some level can sense God’s presence, they have no excuse, Paul is saying. If you sense the presence of the one who is divine and eternal, then you should worship the Great Being, period.

It fascinates me that Paul easily could have used the story of Adam and Eve’s fall in Paradise as a backdrop for his discussion of sin, but that he chose not to do so. Certainly, Paul would have agreed we are born broken because sin entered the world long ago—that our minds are clouded. This is, after all, the same man who wrote, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Here in Romans, however, Paul seems more interested in describing the pattern sinners follow as they fall deeper into sin.

The pattern begins with a breakdown in worship. In their arrogance, sinners begin to define God from their own clouded minds rather than from the great revelations about God we have been given over thousands of years. They may think they worship, but they instead commit acts of idolatry, the worship of lesser gods.

In Paul’s day, he would have been thinking specifically of the idol worshipers all around him in the dominant Greco-Roman culture. It’s not hard to modernize the example, however. I’ve already done that here in sermons on more than one occasion. Anything that is ranked in a person’s heart as more important than God is an idol.

A sinner’s career can certainly take precedence over God, as can the pursuit of security and possessions, which of course require money. Logic and reason are sharp, useful tools God has given us, but sinners abuse those tools if they use them to stab at the heart of faith.

Sometimes, even noble, beautiful ideas can become idols. For example, many people find it easy to elevate nation or family to the same level as God, and perhaps even above God. I have had to learn over time that the things of this earth we most cherish are best kept under God.

Much of the rest of Paul’s text today is dedicated to the repercussions of turning away from God. And yes, he talks very specifically about sexual sins at the heart of debates we are having in both church and state today.

He also moves from those very specific examples of sexual sins to other, more generalized sins, most of them striking at the root of how we treat one another. And in all of this, Paul seems to be indicating that sinners spiral more deeply into sin, unless, of course, they somehow embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the topic in Romans so important to the apostle.

This is a straightforward text. Paul is communicating clearly. Let me be clear regarding what I know is the more controversial part of the text, Paul’s discussion of homosexuality. Paul is calling this particular sexual behavior a sin. Also, he is not talking about a behavior occurring in some past context, a setting that is no longer relevant today.

He very specifically describes the acts and links them not to the specific events of first-century Rome, but to the general tendency of people who have taken their eyes off God to do ungodly things. He says these sinners even will teach others to commit those sins, sin begetting sin. Paul’s words serve as a lesson for today.

I also must emphasize that we are talking about statements made by a man who fully encountered the grace of Jesus Christ before making them. The man was all about grace—as we have seen already, he had a passion for the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that we seldom can match. And yet, in love, he continued to call a sin a sin.

At this point, I think I know most of Luminary UMC’s regulars well enough to know where we are right now. Having asserted homosexuality is, according to New Testament teaching, a sin, I have stirred emotions in many of you.

Some of you have friends or loved ones who call themselves gay or lesbian. It is likely that among this congregation there are people who have faced or are facing their own homosexual desires. Some of you may even be angry with me.

Others of you are inwardly rejoicing I said it. “Yay! Finally!” you’re thinking, although you perhaps also long for a time when such things were not discussed publicly.

I will close today by saying this to all of you who are part of this beloved church I pastor. Hang in there with me one more week. Hear me out one more Sunday. As I said at the first of this sermon, we are, in a way, being set up by Paul.

Next week, we will go to the slightly complicated place Paul is taking us, a place where we will stop talking about sinners in the third person. In other words, this will get even more personal.

Solidarity

Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


Just like John the Baptist, we can resist the idea of Jesus undergoing baptism. When we consider his divine perfection—his sinlessness—a baptism of repentance is difficult to comprehend.

We need to see Jesus’ submission to baptism as a gift, however.

Let’s consider all this from the perspective of people who want to belong to a group. If you’ve never wanted to belong to a group, you are an unusual person, a true lone wolf. For most of us, finding some sort of group identity can be critically important to achieving worldly success and happiness.

My mind goes to the high school and young adult years, that decade or so when we make an intense exploration of who we are. As we reject some groups and pursue membership in others, our identities begin to take shape. We continue to repeat these processes our entire lives, but the teen and young-adult years are called “formative” for a reason.

You all know how this works. Once you’ve identified a group you want to enter, you have to figure out who the gatekeepers of the group are, and what they require for admission. You begin working on your application. It’s probably not on paper, but you’re going through an application process, nonetheless.

This process can be very healthy; well-run sports teams or academic clubs with principled leaders are good examples. This process also can be very unhealthy. Think of street gangs, where people who see limited prospects band together for survival, or ethically challenged business efforts, where profits supersede normal rules of behavior and concern for others.

Jesus, of course, is the gatekeeper for Christianity. But as he did so often in ministry, he turned the role upside-down.

Instead of us going to him for admission to the kingdom, he first comes to us. It is as if the coolest kid in school showed up at your door one day and said, “You’re going to run with me and my crew.”

Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity with humanity. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths. It also was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

Jesus also was saying he would handle the admission requirements for us. Only someone holy and pure could pass the test, and we didn’t stand a chance.

It is only because of Jesus’ work that we can undergo baptism ourselves to establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into membership in the kingdom of heaven.

And of course, like any group we desire to join, there are benefits. It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather to worship the one who saves us, remember who we are, and then behave accordingly.

The Need to Endure

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

When is God done saving you?

Today’s Scripture reading, and a whole lot of other Scripture readings, bring us back to a very Methodist understanding of salvation. Yes, we have a moment, often a very memorable moment, where we consciously step toward God and say, “Lord, I am yours.”

That moment may come before or after baptism in a structured way, for example, during a confirmation class. It also may happen in an unstructured way, perhaps during a contemplative walk or while quietly reading God’s word. It might be a “hot” moment, where the Spirit seizes you and shakes you. It might be a “cool” conversion, something that occurs after years of exposure to the story of Christ.  But there is a moment.

We are to understand, however, that conversion goes beyond a moment. Once God has used his grace to draw us in, gaining our voluntary cooperation, there is additional transformation to come. It is the difference between saying “I was saved” and “I am being saved.” As exciting as the moment can be, the promise of ongoing, life-changing interaction with God should be even more exciting.

What does God move us toward? In short, what we were meant to be—what we would have been without evil in the world, and what we will be when evil is no more.

Here, I think, lies the big struggle for many American Christians. We like having the moment, and we’ll even continue to cling to Christian practice for some time as long as we can feel the glow of the moment. We are a people who love instant gratification. Moving from a moment to a lifetime process is very hard for us, however.

If you struggle with the idea of ongoing sanctification, of salvation being a continuing process, try this analogy. You are drowning. A boat comes along; a hand reaches down and pulls you up. At that moment when your head clears the water and you sputter, spit and begin to breathe, you know you are saved. And yet, the process of salvation has not ended. You still must be pulled into the boat. Someone must dry you off, warm you, and check your lungs. Even the boat ride home is part of being saved. And you certainly don’t want to fall out of the boat!

This idea of ongoing salvation isn’t just some vague theological notion; we need to live it day by day. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you the story of one of the closest friends I ever had.

As you might expect, this close friend was a fellow clergyman. We were about the same age and had a lot in common. He also was a second-career pastor and had entered ministry a few years ahead of me. In many ways, he was my model for the pursuit of holiness, a concept he seemed to take very seriously.

Our church assignments separated us over time, although we tried to stay in touch. A couple of years ago, Connie and I got word from his wife, also a close friend of ours, that something astonishing had happened. He had suddenly left his wife, sons, ongoing advanced education and ministry—pretty much everything that mattered—for another woman, moving far west to help her raise her kids. (The real shocker: The other woman was a pastor, too.)

What caused such a shift in thinking and behavior? One thing seems certain. My friend did not endure, and now he is completely dependent on God’s resurrecting power to undo the damage he has done.

It is a sad story, and I tell it as a reminder that none of us is immune to such error. Satan’s servants are going to aim at all of our weak points in an effort to take as many of us down with them as possible.

I have no formula for how we endure, other than to say any formula is framed by engagement with God through prayer, Scripture, worship and the taking of the sacraments. A lot can vary within that framework, though. Like our saving moment, that ongoing engagement with God will be unique.

I’ve recently been trying to grow by meeting God in formal prayer three times a day, using prayer books to lead me. I know it helps me because prayer now brings me a kind of joy I’ve not had before. The same kind of prayer techniques may not bring you the same joy, but ask yourself, what does?

Connect with God according to your design and you will find continuing joy and spiritual growth, helping you endure any demon you may encounter.