Renowned New Testament scholar W. D. Davies, a number of years ago wrote a book intended not for the scholar, but for the lay person interested in the New Testament. In his section on Paul he has a chapter entitled “The Ancient Enemy.” He begins with a story about President Coolidge, who had just returned from a service of worship one Sunday morning. When he was asked what the minister preached on he replied with one word: “Sin.” The minister preached on sin. When he was further pressed, “What did he say about it?” He responded, “He was against it.”
Over a half century ago, theologian Paul Tillich said that the great words of our Christian tradition cannot be replaced. He argued that there are no adequate substitutes for them – for words like “sin.” Though I’m sure he would have argued that we have to explore multiple meanings of these words.
One of the beautiful things about religious language is that it is symbolical language. It is metaphorical language and can touch us on many levels. The beauty and power of religious language is that words can take on new meanings in new contexts. I am not suggesting that we throw out the old meanings, but we need fresh and more nuanced understandings. This is particularly true when we talk about the language of sin.
Pastor and author John Ortburg tells the story about the time he and his wife sold their Volkswagen Beetle to purchase a really nice piece of furniture. It was a pink sofa, but for the money spent to buy it, it was called a mauve sofa. The man at the sofa store gave them careful instructions on how to care for it. Ortburg said they had very small children in those days and the Number One rule in the house from that day forward was: “Don’t sit on the mauve sofa! Don’t play near the mauve sofa! Don’t eat around the mauve sofa! Don’t touch the mauve sofa! Don’t breathe on the mauve sofa! Don’t even think about the mauve sofa! On every other chair in the house, you may freely sit, but on the mauve sofa you may not sit, for on the day you sit thereon, you shall surely die!”
Then one day - the “Fall.” There appeared on the mauve sofa a red stain, a red jelly stain. His wife called the sofa factory, and unfortunately it would be a permanent blot on the mauve sofa. So she assembled their three children in front of the mauve sofa to look at the stain: Laura 4, Mallory 2 and a half, and Johnny, who was less than a year. She said, “Children, do you see that? That’s a stain. That’s a red stain. That’s a red jelly stain. And the man at the sofa store say’s it’s not coming out, not for all eternity. Do you know how long eternity is, children? Eternity is how long we’re all going to sit here until one of you tells me which one of you put the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa.”
For a long time they all just sat there until finally Mallory cracked. She said, “Laura did it.” Laura said, “No, I didn’t.” Then it was dead silence. Ortburg says, “I knew none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because they had never seen their mom so mad and because they knew if they did they would spend all eternity in the ‘Time Out Chair.’” And then he says, “And I knew that none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because in fact, I was the one who put the stain on the sofa, and I wasn’t sayin’ nuthin! Not a word!”
The truth about us, of course, is that we have all stained the sofa. As Paul says earlier in this letter, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” One time when Barry Larkin, who played for the Reds, hit a game winning home run off of Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson, Patterson described the pitch he gave Larkin as a cross between a screwball and a change-up. He called it a screw-up. Maybe a more contemporary way of saying what Paul meant when he said, “we have all sinned” is that we have all screwed up and struck out. We have all stained the sofa.
All of us get this. We all know about individual sin. We do enough of it don’t we? We have screwed up and struck out many times. We have failed to be loving persons we know we should be. We have hurt others with our words and actions. We have failed to live up to God’s expectations, our own ideals and expectations, and the expectations of others. In any number of ways our attitudes and actions come way short of living out God’s loving will for our lives. We know this. It’s a given.
What we may not know or realize with equal honesty and awareness is our participation in corporate or collective or systemic sin. We all participate in systems of injustice and sin, often without being aware.
For all Paul’s talk about sin, Paul doesn’t give a whole lot of attention to specific attitudes or behaviors that we would identify as “sins.” Rather, when Paul refers to sin, which he most often speaks about in the singular rather than plural (sin not sins) he often has in mind a kind of enslaving power; a force that entraps human beings and which almost always diminishes our lives in some way. It’s a kind of anti-love force that works in our lives individually and in society collectively to tear us apart – to divide us from one another and to divide our own hearts. This is what Paul is talking about when he uses phrases like “the old self” and “the body of sin”- he is speaking theologically, psychologically, and socially. Individually we can think of sin as destructive addictions, as false attachments to power or pleasure or pride, and as negative patterns and habits of thinking and living. Corporately or communally, we are also complicit in systems of sin – systems of injustice and evil. And these systems which we are all part of have enormous shaping and forming power in our lives. They are like force fields that limit our movement.
Think of how we have all bought into a system that keeps us wanting more, wanting what is bigger and better even though we don’t need it. We don’t even give it much thought because it’s what runs our economy. We are all affected by our consumeristic culture. How many big priced glide baits do I need to catch that big bass? How many expensive drivers do you need to hit that little white ball down the fair way? And no matter how much you pay for the drive you still can’t hit it straight, in the same way that I can’t catch that big bass. How much square footage does a family need? You see my point. We hardly even think about these things because they are such a common part of society. When the bass at Cedar Creek started hitting on plastic brush hogs I went out and bought 10 packages of brush hogs in all colors. Did I need 10 packages of brush hogs? Of course not. Now, I will agree though, some of you do need lots and lots of golf balls, but I won’t go there. Such is the power of the system as it appeals to our lesser desires. Think of how the system shapes our wants and desires when it comes to the clothes we wear, our houses and furnishings, our yards, our automobiles, and on and on it goes doesn’t it? So both individually and systemically we get caught in the power of sin.
In this section in Paul’s letter to the Romans, sin is personified as an oppressive regime. It can rule or lord it over a person. It is likened to a master or a tyrannical ruler. You know there is a lot of powerful spiritual symbolism in the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins is the Hobbit who finds the Ring of Power. Everything turns on the Ring of Power. Bilbo is unaware of the power the ring exerts upon him, much the way we are unaware of how deeply we are entrapped to our ego and the patterns of our culture. And through the years, the captivating power the ring has on him grows.
So as he makes plans to leave the shire for good, he intends on giving the ring to his nephew, Frodo, as part of the inheritance he leaves to him. But as the time approaches for him to depart the shire he has second thoughts. He cannot seem to let go of the ring. The ring has this strange hold on him.
Gandolf, the wizard, has observed for some time the strange power of the ring and he encourages Bilbo to give it up. In one scene, as Gandolf prods Bilbo to leave the ring behind, Bilbo’s demeanor changes. Greedy and grasping he snarls, “It’s mine! My own! My precious.” Gandolf does not back down and Bilbo is compelled by Gandolf to relinquish it, to let it go.
When they learn the secret of the ring and Frodo and his companions begin the journey to Mordor, to destroy the ring in the fire at the Mountain of Doom, the ring begins to exercise its overriding power on Frodo. And at the end of the journey, Frodo arrives at the mountain with the sole purpose of dropping the ring into the pit of fire, but then he cannot do it. He can’t let it go. It’s why he undertook this perilous journey. In the end it takes providence; it takes an intervention from Gollum, the pitiful creature who possessed the ring for many years. The power of the ring had destroyed his former self. Ever since he lost the wrong he has been consumed with getting it back. So Gollum tries to take the ring from Frodo. Gollum is able to wrest the ring from Frodo, but then loses his footing and falls into the fire with the ring, thus completing the mission that Frodo had consented to do.
The ring of power is a poignant symbol of both individual and systemic sin. It exposes the power that our addictions and false attachments have over us, as well as the power of the system to control us. So how do we break free? Where do we find freedom? How are we liberated?
Paradoxically, it is by dying that we enter into life. And by the way, this is not unique to the Christian faith. All the great religious traditions teach some form of dying to self, dying to the ego, and letting go. Paul connects this to Christian baptism which he interprets symbolically as our dying with Christ to sin’s power in order to live in the newness of life symbolized by God raising Christ from the dead. The point that I want to make here, which I think is really important, is that dying to sin, letting go of the old self or the false self, breaking free from what Paul calls this “body of sin” is never a once-for-all experience. It is a process and a journey.
There are some experiences that are decisive and may turn us around or change our direction and set us on a different journey or mission, such as Paul’ encounter with Christ when he was a persecutor of Christ followers. But, dying to our negative attitudes and behaviors, letting go of old habits and learning new ones that are more loving and life-giving is a process. When Paul says in verse 11 of our text, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” he is talking about a process that must be repeated daily, just as Jesus says, in Luke’s version of the saying, “Take up your cross daily.” It’s a day by day process. To say this theologically, salvation and sanctification are just different ways of talking about the same reality. Salvation is continual. It is on-going. It is a process of becoming. It is a daily journey of dying and being reborn.
Some spiritual teachers speak of this process as a process of shedding the false baggage we have acquired and discovering our true selves created in God’s image. In a Hasidic tale, a rabbi named Zusya dies and stands before the judgment seat of God. As he waits for God to appear, he grows anxious imagining what God may ask him. What if God asks him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you David or why weren’t you Elijah?” But when God appears God asks the rabbi, “Why weren’t you Zusya? Why did you not discover your true self? Why did you not become who you are?
Maybe redemption and transformation is about allowing the Spirit who indwells us the freedom to shape us into the likeness of the image already stamped upon us. I like the story about the country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”
For Christians the art of soulmaking, the process of becoming who we really are and were created to be means whittling away the parts that don’t resemble Jesus. It means whittling away the parts not in sync with the loving, compassionate healer and liberator of the Gospels known as Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as Lord.
It’s not easy though. Negative patterns of thinking, what Richard Rohr calls “stinking thinking” and self-serving patterns of behavior are hard to overcome. Especially when the system we live in and the culture we are part of encourages bad thinking and behavior. This is why we have to be patient with one another, and patient with ourselves. It’s a journey. Growth is sometimes very slow. We don’t let go of egocentric attitudes and actions overnight. But as Paul says, “Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.” Sometimes the process is painful. There are setbacks. There are times it’s really tough, but God will see us through. As Paul says in another letter, “The one who began this good work in us will bring it to completion.”
Our good God, sometimes our growth, our liberation from sin, from the old self, from systems of injustice, is like a snail’s pace. We confess our own entanglement in unjust systems, and we acknowledge how often we are ego driven rather than love driven. Help us to be aware of our sin. Help us to be aware of our ensnarement by the system. And give us the grace to ask your help and the patience to be persistent, to keep getting up every time we fall, so that we might whittle away at all the negativity and selfishness in our lives, and become more of the humble, loving, serving, compassionate persons you have called us to be.