“May Grace Abound”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
Each Sunday, we pray a corporate confession of sin. When inviting you to that prayer, I sometimes quote Paul who spoke of sin as “falling short of the glory of God.” Or I speak of sin as “unfaithfulness,” or “brokenness,” or somehow distorting the image of God within us. If it seems that I’m avoiding the word “sin” itself, that may be true.
The faith language that many of us have inherited is one of reward and punishment. And in this language, sin becomes not just the focal point but the starting point. According to original sin theology, we’re all fundamentally “bad” creatures. Hopeless and helpless, we may die at any moment, and, if we haven’t said all the right words in all the right formulas, we’ll be thrown into hell.
That fear- and shame-driven approach reduces religious observance to appeasing an offended and angry god who is waiting for our brief and beleaguered earthly lives to end. At “pearly gates,” this god welcomes those who will say, I am ten pounds of garbage in a five-pound bag, but Jesus is my lord and savior. Then, without a second thought, this vindictive deity will dump all the sinners into a fiery pit of never-ending suffering.
I wish that were hyperbole. But on any given Sunday, one doesn’t have to travel far to hear that message preached as the core of the good news. And honestly, part of me gets it. In this truly brief and beleaguered life, the reality of pain is so certain and things like happiness and peace are so painfully uncertain that many of us want to assure ourselves that God punishes bad people and rewards good people. Such thinking is uncomplicated, logical, and consistent. But isn’t it a thoroughly human thing to want to get even by watching others suffer?
Original sin theology also reduces grace to something that must, ultimately, be earned or deserved, even if only by the requirement of consent. At that point, whatever gets called grace is simply not grace.
From my reading of people like Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Martin Luther King, and others, I have come to trust that at the core of every human being lies not fundamental brokenness and depravity, but the essential holiness and beauty we call the image of God. That, I believe, is what God sees with uninterrupted joy within each and every human being.
The undeniable reality is that we fail to see God’s image in ourselves, others, and in the Creation around us. God’s image is always there, but it gets hidden by the selfishness, pride, and fear that make us comfortable with the idea of sin as our fundamental reality and with the image of an eternally angry and vengeful god. But it is sin, not God, that torments us. And far more than doing “bad” things, sin is the idolatry to which humankind, as a whole, has resigned itself. So, before the Gospel of Jesus is eye-opening and healing good news, it’s disrupting news, because to be set upon the path of restoration to the original wholeness and beauty of our God-imaged selves, we undergo transformation. In many faith traditions, ours included, death is the central metaphor for that journey of renewal.
Death is an emotionally-charged image. Whether by age, illness, accident, or the enslaved and enslaving actions of others, we all die physically. And our faith challenges us to think metaphorically about death. Spiritually speaking, death is that ongoing event through which we are transformed from one way of being into another. It’s a paradox, but to die to ourselves is to become newly awake and alive, and more fully human. And here’s the good news: The incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth reveals that the transformational power of the death and resurrection process is something God wants, wills, and offers in this life. It is, by grace, a gift given before the death by which our material bodies return to the earth.
In his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says that a life of new consciousness of the image of God in ourselves and others, is what Jesus means by “The Kingdom of God.”1 Much more than a post mortem location, God’s kingdom is a transformed “way of seeing…now…”2 in this world.
“Now is the day of salvation,” says Paul. (2Cor. 6:2)
“The kingdom of God is among (or within) you,” says Jesus. (Luke 17:21)
The kingdom of God happens wherever people share gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness. To get a glimpse or a whiff of true compassion, to hear voices raised as one in opposition to dehumanizing selfishness, is to stand within the realm of God’s boundless grace.
The struggle for us is acknowledging that such experiences come not through Kum Bah Yah moments around a campfire or in secure echo chambers with like-minded allies. They come to us when, through confession and redeemed action, we name our own complicity in what has hurt and is hurting ourselves, others, and the earth. Like the Creation itself, Kingdom of God moments well up from the chaos, from the formless void of disruption when we can no longer abide or excuse the fact of sin and the injustice it breeds.
The upheaval around us today is an unsettling but promising instance of what Paul calls the “creation wait[ing…and groaning] with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:19 & 22) Racism, environmental abuse, uncritical nationalism, idolatry of material wealth and violent power—all this “sin” has challenged the human race for eons, and for the last two millennia, Paul has been calling Christians to do something radical in their own troubled contexts. He’s been calling us to take baptism seriously.
“Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ…we will also live with him.”
If baptism does any practical good, it reminds us that only by dying to selfishness, fear, and pride do we enter the new life of loving neighbor as if we’re loving ourselves, loving him or her regardless of skin color, political party, religion, nationality, opinion on the issues, or anything else. That’s not to say we ignore the actions of neighbors when their choices diminish or end the lives of others. Jesus didn’t do justice that way. He loved—and he loves—people into recognizing and celebrating the holiness in all people. That is God’s justice, the way of grace. And while it’s often the most difficult and frustrating course of action, it’s also the way that gives us the best chance to participate in God’s healing of the Creation.
We’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” And as we do, let’s remember, this song was written by an Englishman whose vocation was the slave trade, one of humankind’s most heinous and universal sins. As members of a primarily Euro-American denomination, most PC(USA) Presbyterians have experienced the lingering effects of human slavery from the perspective of beneficiaries. Few of us can imagine, much less understand the burden of living every day as reminders of a heritage of exploitation and suffering.
While the imagery of “Amazing Grace” speaks of a life after physical death, the kingdom of God always includes the here-and-now, where human beings “walk in newness of life,” where we live as one diverse and beleaguered Creation, fashioned and beloved by God, abounding in grace, and which, even now, is being redeemed through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009. Pp. 100-101.