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Return to Eden

Return To Eden

Reading: Romans 5:1-21

Introduction: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If you and I had been citizens living in the city of Rome when the reader of Paul’s letter got to these opening words of what we call the fifth chapter, we would have been stunned by the word choices. But probably not the same word choices that captured the attention of Martin Luther 1400 years later, words that have continued to shape Western Protestant Christianity ever since. When Luther read these words, they offered hope and promise in the face of his own inability to keep from sinning and his belief that the church had turned the forgiveness of sins into a money-making enterprise. The words “justification by faith” became the theme of a new vision for salvation in which followers of Jesus are saved from the judgment of death and hell that we deserve and instead given forgiveness and eternal life as a gift through our faith in Jesus Christ.

For Luther and the Christians of his day, God was the angry judge and humans were sinners who could not escape judgment. In the church world of Luther, the path to forgiveness was through penance – through acts of contrition, as deemed appropriate by the church. The church in Luther’s day had developed elaborate methods by which one could earn forgiveness through varieties of rituals and pilgrimages to holy places where relics from the past could be seen and touched and worshipped. What Luther experienced was not the forgiveness of God in these performances, but a corrupt church in which forgiveness seemed to be bartered by the sale of these “indulgences” as they were called. One could actually buy forgiveness like people buy lottery tickets today – pay for them in advance, in hopes that the sins you commit won’t count against you before the angry judge named God Almighty. No matter how many prayers Luther uttered or indulgences he purchased, he could not escape his guilt and fear. Justification by faith was such a relief in Luther’s world – to know that grace, the free gift of God is the means of forgiveness and faith is all humans have to offer rather than performances and penance.

Had we lived in the city of Rome, the heart of the most powerful empire on Earth in the first century, it probably would not have been the opening phrase that captured our attention. Everyone in Rome understood that the great freedom they enjoyed was due to their Lord and Savior Caesar and it was Caesar who had established and now maintained the Peace of Rome. The gods and the barbarians were kept at bay or otherwise ritually appeased by the worship of Caesar, the divine presence in the midst of the people.

Now this letter from Paul, written to this strange mix of people trying to live in community with each other in Rome, returns to the bold assertion that he first made in the opening greeting – grace and peace come from God our Father (not just God the angry judge) and our Lord Jesus Christ. The story of sin and death in the world has the same outcomes for Jews and Gentiles alike, Paul has argued. Regardless of one’s ethnic origins or religious practices, all human beings have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is no escape from sin and death through human performances, or law keeping, but there is absolute trust in God’s love and the gift of righteousness that he once offered to his servant Abraham. In Jesus Messiah, that gift, that grace of righteousness has been offered to all who have faith. So the opening sentence of chapter five continues, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:1b-8).

Five hundred years after Martin Luther, works righteousness has taken on different forms in different protestant groups over the years, and you sometimes still find people who believe there are laws that have to be kept, rituals that have to be perfectly observed, and church practices that cannot be changed under the threat of losing one’s salvation. For the most part, however, the Christian world has discovered Paul’s language of grace and faith as interpreted through Martin Luther. Yes some will debate whether we are saved by faith alone or faith plus a few human performances like baptism, but justification by faith and salvation by grace are core understandings for most of us. And grace is great news because all of us know we are still sinners! No matter when we were baptized or how many worship services we attend, we know we’re not perfect, just sinners who have been saved. Even though we keep messing up, faith in Jesus and gift of God’s grace means that when we die, we will still go to heaven because our sins have been forgiven.

So, for a grace filled room of Christians like this one, Paul’s opening words don’t capture our attention like they did Martin Luther. Perhaps as citizens of the American empire we should be stuck a bit more than we are on the announcement of peace through God and the Lord Jesus Christ. But it’s the next phrase that has caught my attention most recently: this “access by faith into this grace in which we now stand, or “into this grace in which we now are living.” In this phrase ‘grace’ seems to be more than forgiveness of our constant failure to live by the rules, or a ‘free gift’ that keeps us out of hell when we die. It sounds like Grace is an identity that changes who we are in the present. More is at stake than an instant indulgence system in which Jesus already bought me permission to keep on sinning. Here is my question this morning: What if grace is an empowering identity that we are called to live right now, not just that which clears the record of us sinners when we stand before the judge in eternity? What if the ‘grace in which we stand’ is more about what we offer to others than it is my personal superior fire insurance policy?

In his book entitled “Embracing Grace” (Paraclete Press, 2005), Scot McKnight suggests that too often Christians have taken the perspective of Martin Luther and a view of sin in our world and our lives that shrinks the gospel of God that Paul is announcing in texts like Romans or Galatians. We hear the words justification by faith and salvation from our sins, and even though we want to think of God as our Father, it is the image of God as judge that dominates our thoughts about sin and salvation. Justification is a legal term and we think of our sins as laws of God that we have violated. Our violation of God’s laws, our identity as sinners before God the judge, now has been overcome by the death of Jesus. Our songs confirm this perspective. We owed a debt (of sin) we could not pay; Jesus paid the debt for us. Paul seems to agree: while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Grace is the means by which we all avoid the punishment in hell that we all actually deserve when we die.

But that’s not all that Paul seems to say here about Grace – Grace is a way of being in this life, not just a get-out-of-hell-free card when we die. So McKnight suggests that we do what Paul himself does here in the rest of Romans chapter five, and that is to return to Eden and rethink what God was doing in the very beginning. McKnight makes a very provocative proposal: what if, rather than thinking of sin primarily as breaking God’s commandments, we think of sin as breaking relationship?

Consider for a moment the opening chapters of Genesis and the place of human beings in creation. In the first account of creation, Creator God starts out making the heavens and the earth, and at each stage along the way he looks at what he has done and he likes it! The repeated refrain is, “And God saw that it was good.” Once the land is covered with vegetation and the sea is full of life and the skies are filled with birds and there are all kinds of animals and insects on the land, Creator God pauses and reflects a bit before his last great creation on the planet: “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness so that they may be the caretakers over everything else we’ve created.” So God creates human beings in his image, male and female. Somehow we know that even the language of male and female is caught up in this identity as the image of God. More is at stake than biology and procreation for human male and female.
There is a relational identity embedded in both the “we” language of God’s identity and in the male/female image bearers on the planet. The picture of God’s creation at the end of the first story in chapter one is that everything God has made is very good, and this last creation, human beings, is the means by which the rest of creation sees God. Male and female humans are the image of God to the rest of Creation.

In chapter two we remember that the story gets changed around somewhat. Rather than creating human beings last, the male human being gets created first. Then God creates the plants and puts the man in a particularly nice garden spot, and starts talking to him about the relationship he is to have with the land and with his creator – everything is there for his enjoyment and care, but there is one tree that he needs to respect and leave alone in order to preserve the good relationship he has with the creator. If he eats from that tree, the life that God has breathed into him will be taken away. Creator God then realizes that man by himself is incomplete and the search for a like-kind partner begins. The animals are created in search of a partner, but only when the woman is formed from the man is there that moment when man sees woman and all is right with the world.
Before hastening ahead to what happens next, think about male and female in the Garden for a moment. Here they are imaging God to the rest of creation, apparently in conversation with the one who created them. All creation is good; all is in harmony with the Creator. All is well until the crafty serpent suggests that God has forbidden the fruit of that one tree only because he knows that if humans eat that fruit, they won’t need God anymore. Everything God knows they will know, so they will be fine without him.

So Paul can write to the Romans and say that sin and death entered the world through the first Adam, and that sin and death have spread to all human beings ever since. Think of what happens if we think of sin relationally at that moment. Yes, the command not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowing good and evil is broken, but the command itself was about a relationship of trust between Creator God and the Imagers of God on this planet. When they broke trust, they severed relationship and in severing relationship the image of God was severely damaged. In his book McKnight transliterates the Greek word for “image” which is “Eikon” and talks about humans being cracked Eikons from that point forward.

He also reflects on the broken relationships – relationship with God is obviously broken, but there is also relationship with self. Human identity as the Eikon of God is broken. Relationship with other human beings is broken. Adam and Eve immediately need to hide not only from God but also from each other. We also must not miss the fact that relationship with the land is broken. It is the ground that receives the curse in the story.

Ever since then Creator God has been longing to heal the relationships. So the rest of the story unfolds. Paul tells his audience of the way in which law ends up working after that. Because humans are cracked Eikons the establishment of laws never fixes the relationship problems. Laws are the mirror that human beings hold up that keeps revealing all that is broken in our relationships. But now God has sent a second Adam into the world. One in whom the image of God is whole and complete. Life has come to all who believe in this second Adam and he is making it possible for all the relationships to be healed. He is the means by which humans can be made whole! All relationships! Yes, our relationship with created God is made whole, not just in heaven when we die, but now. This is grace in which we stand! Our own identity as the imagers of God on this planet is made whole. Our relationships with other human beings can be made whole. In Christ, even our relationship with the land is made whole. You’ll talk about this more fully, I am sure, when you see all creation groaning for God’s final redemption in your study of Romans eight. But think about this grace in which we stand this morning.

Followers of Jesus are called to be the greenest people on the planet. We are the ones announcing wholeness of relationship with the land. We are the ones announcing wholeness of relationship with every other human being, especially during Black history month. We are the ones announcing this grace in which we live our lives.

Paul says we are empowered by this grace even to give glory to God when the immediate evidence might suggest all is not right in our relationships. Look again at these first five verses as we close this morning:
“Therefore, since we have been made whole through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5). Even in the face of all that is less than image of God humanity on this planet, we glory because God is at work growing us more fully into the likeness of Jesus who most fully expressed his love for us by dying when we were still cracked Eikons! The path to our own maturity is guaranteed by God’s love that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

In that last phrase, Paul introduces his audience then and now to the real empowerment for this grace filled life of relational wholeness. Like television shows that invite us to stay tuned for the big finale, Paul has just offered us a sound bite invitation to the future. The Holy Spirit has been poured out! Just wait and see what that means for sin and death and fear and slavery – and freedom! We been recalled to God’s paradise garden, not just after we die, but NOW!

Delivered at 4th Avenue Church in Franklin, TN, February 17, 2008.

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