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Sunday 28 June 2020

Should we sin?

Romans 6:12-23

By Rusty Edwards

Senior Minister, First Baptist Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Context: urban congregation with average attendance of approximately 150 that describes itself as ‘progressive’

Aim: to unpack the term ‘sin’ and inspire active participation in social justice

We have ended another season of public wisdom offered in the form of commencement addresses. Last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered the commencement speech at Harvard University. In her speech she said, ‘The moment when you step out into the open is also a moment of risk taking. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death … I believe that time and time again we need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings and to make the most of opportunities.’

I’m going to step out on a limb and say that for most people, chapter 6 of Romans does not read like an inspiring commencement address. If you want to make the list of great commencement speeches in the year 2020, it is not advisable to load your speech with the word sin…. sin, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin (eleven times in twelve verses Paul uses the s-word).

It is a word we are taught in ‘progressive church speak’ (!) to avoid. Say it too much and you are going to conjure up images of self-righteous religiosity. But then it is hard to read the Bible without having to utter the unutterable.

One theologian, trying to wrap her mind around sin, defines it like this, ‘Life itself is the only framework comprehensive enough to explain sin. After all, sin affects all of life. Since Jesus described himself as the One who came to give abundant life to all creation, we might think of sin as anything that robs us of the fullness of life — or something we’ve done that robs others of the fullness of life.’

In verse 15, Paul raises a question: ‘Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?’ If God’s grace is so vast and dependable, can we just go on doing those things which rob ourselves and others of the fullness of life and simply rely on God’s grace to heal what is broken? Paul answers emphatically: ‘Hell, no.’ (Or, as the NRSV translates, ‘By no means!’)

Earlier in chapter 6, Paul expressed that in following Jesus we have been raised to walk in newness of life (notice the verb, raised to walk — not raised to believe, not raised to think). We are not called to let God’s generous grace do all the work.

Which brings us back to sin. If sin is whatever robs us and our neighbours of fullness of life, then what we need is a new beginning — to end those things which rob ourselves and others of life and begin anew. Paul believes following Jesus invites us to a new beginning that calls us to work alongside God for fullness of life — we are raised in baptism to actively work with God.

Paul connects this to the cross of Christ. The cross is God’s answer to all the dead ends we humans make for ourselves and our world. The cross represents our quest for violence, our broken politics, our corrupt religious systems, our fear of recognising the causes of poverty, hunger, and illness in our world — all things Jesus spent his life and ministry confronting. For this Jesus was crucified. His answer from the cross was, ‘Creator God, forgive them.’

This is the way of new beginnings. To confront sin. To confront the dead ends of life with a love so deep and real that it actively works for new beginnings.

Can we just pray for a better world, gather in our churches, hear a few sermons, have a workshop or two, and leave the problem of sin to God? ‘Hell no,’ says Paul, ‘we are called to be part of making new beginnings happen.’

Merkel, recounting the dead end she witnessed in the Berlin Wall that once divided her homeland, and staring down the walls of populism and nationalism rising up throughout the world these days, called the graduates of Harvard to see these walls as dead ends. But Merkel added a word of hope: ‘Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death.’

Paul says it like this: in the death of Christ, there is a call to newness of life. It is this new life that we have been baptised into and that we are called to walk within. Should we continue living the ways of life that rob ourselves and others of the fullness of life? Should we continue living in sin so that grace may abound? ‘Hell no,’ says Paul.

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