Sin versus Grace
A sermon by Revd Chris Williams 9 March 2014
Today is the first Sunday of Lent and each year at this time the lectionary draws our attention to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness before he began his ministry – and it is on this we base our 40 days of Lent. In essence, it’s about Jesus being tempted by Satan to sin – but Jesus resisted those temptations.
It would be easy to dive into this story, but alongside it in our lectionary is this passage from Romans 5 which I would like us to consider. It is a powerful reflection on the magnitude of sin and death –and the even greater abundance of God’s grace in Christ.
Lent is the time of year when we are called to take stock of ourselves – to honestly appraise our situation. If we’re really honest, none of us can do that without an acute awareness of our sin. (Sin being everything we have said and thought and done – or omitted to say, think and do – which does not match the holy perfection of God). Put like that – we are all sinners: and Paul, earlier in Romans, says as much: all have sinned – all have fallen short of God’s glory’. This is, it seems, the human condition. And this is why Paul brings in Adam – this first and archetypal human being – to show that sin has always been a problem – in fact the problem. While Paul is not here saying we are born sinners – he is saying we all sin – it is unavoidable. And he is saying it is a big deal.
I think deep down we all know this but we do have a tendency to trivialise it sometimes – you know ‘I sinned today – I ate a cream cake– oops!’ or we create a hierarchy of sins and sinners. At the top we put paedophiles and child abusers– followed closely at the moment by President Putin and (in my house), Michael Gove! At, or near the bottom we usually place ourselves.
But that’s all missing the seriousness of sin. Maybe the word ‘sin’ doesn’t help us nowadays; maybe we find it a little quaint – not really meaning much. A few weeks ago I preached and mentioned a book I had read which simply speaks about the ‘human propensity to screw things up’ (HPtFtU) – but he didn’t say ‘screw’ – he used the ‘F’ word. I asked Bernie if she thought I could say it this morning and she(quite wisely, I’, sure), said no – which is annoying really because I think it is more punchy and shocking than ‘sin’ (at least I’m sure it would be among such holy people as yourselves!). Also, I suspect some of us would get more annoyed about me using that word in church than the sin to which it relates.
Unfortunately sin (or whatever we want to call it), seems unavoidable. And sin is also deeper and more insidious than we may think. By turning against God our neighbour and ourselves we bring about the ruin of all that is good in the world. Sin and death are not simply annoyances or particular flaws of human life – they are the central and ultimately destructive problem of our existence in which human society is catastrophically trapped. It’s a ‘collective catastrophe’ as one commentator puts it.
You might think I am getting close to saying that to sin is what it means to be human – but sin is not what God intended because sin de-humanises – it represents our worst selves and the worst of human society – it is anti-life – anti-human. But it is a constant reality.
And so, we may find ourselves expressing ourselves in the words of Paul in Romans 7: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? … Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!!!
While Paul urges us to appreciate the gravity of the human condition, he is even more concerned to press on us that Christ’s power and saving grace far, far exceed the destruction that comes from sin and death. In fact I think this is one of the most dramatic and powerful passages in scripture.
Sin is a fact of human life – and it seems we can do nothing about it. Sin screws us up – it screws up those around us and it separates us from God. It’s a big deal – but there’s a bigger deal. A much bigger deal.
Listen to v15-17 in the New Living Translation:
“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. 16And 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. 17For 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.”
In these 3 verses and the two following, the word ‘grace’ and the word ‘gift’ are mentioned 5 times each.
And we could define grace as: ‘The love and mercy given to humanity as a spontaneous gift from God – generous, free, totally unexpected and undeserved’.
You may think of Lent as a time for being sober and introspective – a time for honest reflection on our human propensity to screw up – and it is – but there is no season in the Christian calendar designed to make us feel bad about ourselves. Every moment we feel guilty is a moment too long. If we dwell on sin, we do so only on a journey to grace and freedom.
The bottom line is that through Jesus we are made right with God – even though we are guilty of many sins – that’s what v16 says: we are made right with God even though we are guilty of many sins. That means that we don’t need to cower before God – we can come before him boldly. When God looks at us he doesn’t see sin, he sees a righteous person clothed in God’s grace. In fact being guilty of many sins is the condition that activates God’s grace. We struggle with that don’t we? We think we need to do something, pray harder, work harder, love more, give more. We think we should earn grace – or at least pay a little towards it! But it’s like someone offering you a billion pounds and you saying ‘Oh please, let me give you 50p towards it!’
If we think like that, then we have missed by a country mile, both the enormity of our sin and the power of grace. God’s grace is a gift. To receive this gift you don’t have a birthday, you don’t pass an exam, you don’t move to a new house, you don’t do something particularly kind or brave. To deserve this gift you need to sin! That means every member of the human race is entitled to this gift.
Some of us struggle with that: God seemingly throwing around his grace in a wanton and wasteful fashion as a gift for anyone – even them…. (insert name/title of those you consider least eligible). We want justice and vengeance and hellfire – frankly we would be happy if some people were torn limb from limb with hot tongs! But if we are really demanding God’s holy justice, then we had better be prepared to feel those hot tongs ourselves. The dramatic and shocking reality of grace is that it is for sinners. It’s for everyone – and if it’s for everyone – it’s for you and it’s for me.
This is dangerous thinking – but it is Christian thinking. It’s so dangerous that Paul, two Verses after this reading says ‘what then, in view of all this, should we go on sinning so that there can be more grace?’ the answer, by the way, is ‘no’ – but that’s how radical and shocking is God’s free grace and unconditional love – and we are on the receiving end of it.
The ultimate demonstration of that love is the cross – that’s why we celebrate Holy Communion every week in this church – and celebrate is the right word to use because, however awful the cross, this is ultimately a symbol and sign of how much we are loved and a revelation of God’s grace. Let’s learn to accept that grace; to thank God for that grace; to revel in and enjoy that grace.
Let me finish with the last two verses of our reading from The Message version of the Bible:
18-19 Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life! One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man said yes to God and put many in the right.
Our sin is deep, unavoidable and devastating, but the grace of God far exceeds the power of sin and death. God himself is on our side against sin and death and nothing can separate us from his abundant grace and love in Christ Jesus.