Several years ago, a friend and member of the church I used to serve in McLean, telephoned me. She had good news! Her daughter was getting married. Yes, Blair was engaged to a fine man named Chad. The wedding was going to be at Veritas Vineyard—just outside of Charlottesville. Could I officiate? Of course I could—I would be delighted! During the course of our conversation, my friend said, “You know it’s so funny. Several times now I have referred to them as Chair and Blad.” As in, Chair and Blad have finally set the date! We laughed. Chair and Blad.
I made a mental note right then and I returned to that mental note, as I crafted the wedding service—“DO NOT say Chair and Blad; Do not say Chair and Blad.” And of course, the day of the wedding. What did it say? “We come here to celebrate the marriage of Chair and Blad.” AGH!
And now going way back into history. I graduated seminary in 1996. The graduating class was larger than usual and so we broke with tradition. We did not have our ceremony at the Methodist Church in DC. We needed a bigger space. Our graduation exercises were held at the humongous, gigantic, extraordinary National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. I printed off pictures of that church’s sanctuary to share with you. The sanctuary looks like the inside of a whale, right? It is that big—and don’t those inside supports look like whale bones? Using that as a metaphor, it is as if, WE soon-to be graduates, were latter day Jonahs inside a whale’s belly about to be spit out into the world to do God’s bidding.
One by one we graduates came forward to receive our tickets to ministry--our degrees. It took forever with such a big class. Finally, finally we sang the closing hymn. Then the dean stood before us to offer his inspiring charge and blessing. He said this, “As you leave this place today to begin your various ministries, may God undermine all your efforts.” There was a long pause, and then he said “I meant undergird—I meant undergird.” AGH!
Don’t you just KNOW that the dean, nervous about the largesse of the crowd he would be addressing, had been saying over and over in his mind during that long graduation service, “Now whatever you do, DO NOT say undermine.”
This week we are studying Romans 6:12-23. Last week, if you were here, you may recall I preached on another of Paul’s writings in Romans. Among the lines we studied last week was Paul’s self-critical reflection, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
In today’s passage Paul is at it again—still brooding on why it is we try so hard to do the right thing, and then do the wrong thing. Like saying words we don’t mean to say-- Chair and Blad and undermine. For him, though, it is more than just silly, not so significant mistakes. He wants to know why we sin.
Read enough of Paul’s letters and it is clear, actually, that Paul is obsessed with the notion of sin. It’s not just an odd Pauline perversion, though. Sin was a hot topic back in Paul’s day—at least it was among the Jews. One indication of that is what has been revealed by recent findings by Biblical archeologists.
Not too long ago, Biblical archeologists uncovered what would be like an oil field to a petroleum geologist or a gold mine to a prospector —I’m talking about a trash pit.
Archeologists love ancient trash pits, because what people long dead threw out, tells a lot about how they lived.
The Jerusalem trash pit dates from about 40 BC to the 60’s AD. What those Biblical archeologists discovered in that pit were lots and lots of animal bones—young animals—sacrificial animals. That doesn’t sound all that surprising, maybe. Back in that day the Jews practiced animal sacrifice. But what the Biblical archeologists concluded, by comparing that trash pit with others from early times, is this. The temple priests in Paul’s day were slaughtering an inordinate number of animals. They must have been wading in sacrificial blood--not just on the Day of Atonement either, but every single day.
Why? One theory is that the Jews were extraordinarily worried and depressed. The Roman Empire occupied their country after all. They were burdened with exorbitant taxes; landholders’ property was being confiscated by Rome. If you tried to resist, you were killed—it was as simple as that. The Jews, then, felt an almost manic compulsion to offer sacrifices to God. They were hoping to soften God’s heart for whatever it was that God must be punishing them for. We don’t know for sure, of course, maybe never will—but there is a strong consensus that that was the reason for the dramatic uptick in sacrificial offerings.
Paul, then, himself a Jew, was struggling with what had become the Jews’ debilitating self-blame. In so many words he says here in this passage, something we ALL might do well to take to heart: “By focusing on sin, we become slaves to sin. Don’t focus on sin, then, and don’t focus on what NOT to do—Chair and Blad, Undermine—two cases in point. Paul instructs his followers to focus on righteousness—on doing what is right. In other words—train your mind to think positively. Take a positive perspective on life. If Paul hadn’t been an apostle, he would have made a great motivational speaker.
Now there is one more idea that Paul expresses in today’s reading that I want to spend some time on—and it is related to what we just talked about—Which again, is sin. Paul says this in today’s passage: “So now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” And later, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification.” Ok. So, what IS sanctification?
To sanctify—it means to make holy. It’s that simple. When we focus on being righteous—doing the right thing we are made holy by God
Does that strike you as a gross and even a dangerous exaggeration? “Yep, I’ve been sanctified by God. I’m holy. God and I are like that. (cross fingers).”
“That certainly doesn’t jibe with what our Presbyterian faith teaches.”
If that is what you are thinking right now, you would be partially right. John Calvin, our founder, wrote that human beings are worms—that’s about as low as you can get, both literally and figuratively. Worms. Crawling around in the ground eating dirt. If you want more proof of Presbyterians’ low estimate of human beings, you can look to Presbyterian doctrine. At some time or other, a Presbyterian council determined that there are five essential tenets of the Presbyterian faith. One of those essential tenets is Total Depravity. We are totally and forever depraved--corrupt, evil, wicked. Oh joy!
I hope what I am about to tell you won’t cause your defect to the OTHER church in town, but I am going to tell you this anyway. The Methodists are much less negative regarding our human condition. I know that because I attended a Methodist Seminary. THEIR founder, John Wesley, often wrote about human perfection and the steps to achieving human perfection. And that fits more with what Paul says in our passage today, don’t you think? Again, focusing on the positive?
Actually, John Calvin and John Wesley and Paul were very much of the same mind, though—despite John Calvinn's “worm” comment. And just so you know, John Calvin is far and away a better scholar than John Wesley, just not so good at Public Relations—so don’t defect..
What John Calvin and John Wesley both concluded from their reading of scripture, is this: Yes, we human beings are sinful. Once we accept the fact that God and Jesus love us, forgive us—we are overcome with gratitude and love. It’s the feeling you get when you fall in love maybe—or when you have a new baby, or grandbaby—you are so full of love and gratitude and excitement, too, that you have to announce what is in your heart to the whole world—you announce it in both word and deed. That announcing to the world in word and deed is sanctification.
So to recap, yes, we are sinful. Better not to dwell on that too much, though. Better to imagine and then to commit to doing better. God approves of our attempts to do better—that approval is our sanctification. We are all of us here today, then sanctified.
I thought I would end this sermon with a quote from a very Presbyterian book—by Shirley Gutherie—The title is Christian Doctrine which sounds God-awful boring, but really isn’t. Shirley Gutherie says this in his chapter on Sanctification, “The Christian life is not easy. It is difficult and costly. But it is not a life of grim, teeth-gritting determination. The Christian can enter upon the serious responsibilities of the Christin life with a kind of light-hearted, cheerful confidence….” Believe it! It is true! Amen