Year A, Proper 7: Romans 5:15-19
Sunday, June 19, 2005
The Rev. Adam Linton
We find ourselves involved in a larger story not of our own choosing. Perhaps sometimes it feels as though we are characters in a novel trying to figure out the plot (and our place in it) as the book goes along. An essential part of all authentic human “figuring out” is conversation—and sometimes debate—with others. So, it is no coincidence that conversation and debate are the Jewish, and therefore the biblical, way of doing theology.
Paul the Apostle, in spite of the key distinctives that set him apart from his background, remains, in his methodology, classically Jewish—truly rabbinic. So, we can never understand Paul’s writings unless we appreciate their conversational character. Getting a sense of who the conversation partners are is indispensable to a productive reading of the epistles.
Some of these were of those of Paul’s own day: supporters, opponents, and—of course—those with whom he wished to share the Gospel. Others were voices of earlier times, most importantly, the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. And, by Spirit-intended extension, we become partners. We, too, are drawn into the circle.
Surely, it is not always clear what we are to do with this. Paul’s style can be described—politely—as dense. He loves long sentences, in which, as readers, we have to play challenging rounds of “Let’s Find the Main Verb.” And, frankly, a number of us, at least some of the time, find his content off-putting. Yet, most Sundays of the year, in the second Scripture lesson, we are given Paul to hear. His writings make up both a substantial part and the earliest part of our New Testament. Across centuries, often cited by differing sides in heated theological debates, we find him close to the action throughout the history of Christianity. Therefore, wrestling with Paul seems to be a part of the deal for us. I, personally, wouldn’t have it otherwise.
So, here we are. Before we go on, I suggest that we hear today’s passage again, from another version. Not that there is anything wrong with The New Revised Standard Version, the version that we (and most Episcopal congregations) use on a regular basis. But even if we are likely to chuckle at the saying, “If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us,” it doesn’t hurt that we also keep well in mind that the Scriptures we read and hear are translations. Language being what it is, it simply is not possible to have one perfect translation of a text from one tongue to another. Sparing the endeavor of learning Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek), most of us still have easy access to reading passages from more than one rendering. This gives additional lines of sight into a text—often quite a valuable thing. A version that I check often, especially for Paul, is The Revised English Bible.
So, from this version, again, here is the New Testament Lesson, from Romans:
“But God’s act of grace is out of all proportion to Adam’s wrongdoing. For if the wrongdoing of that one man brought death upon so many, its effect is vastly exceeded by the grace of God and the gift of the one man, Jesus Christ. And again, the gift of God is not to be compared in its effect with that one man’s sin; for the judicial action, following on the one offense, resulted in a verdict of condemnation, but the act of grace, following on so many misdeeds, resulted in a verdict of acquittal. If by the wrongdoing of one man, death established its reign through that one man, much more shall those who in far greater measure receive grace and the gift of righteousness live and reign through the one man, Jesus Christ. It follows, then, that as the result of one misdeed was condemnation for all people, so the result of one righteous act is acquittal and life for all. For through the disobedience of one man many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous.” (5:15-19)
Paul is continuing his conversational engagement with the Book of Genesis. Just a bit ago, he was discussing the figure of Abraham. Now, he is looking at Christ in perspective with the Adam-story. Keep in mind, by the way, that in Hebrew, “Adam” means “the human.” So, we are to read this story as a setting forth of the universal human story—including ours.
Genesis addresses not the how of creation, but, rather, the what and why of creation. It speaks to us of the larger narrative in which we live. With no disrespect intended to those who experience it otherwise, I have to say that I have never personally understood either the passion or the content of the fundamentalist controversies. It seems clear to me that the idea that the truth of any Biblical passage must be equated with post-“Enlightenment” notions of literal facticity is a highly questionable assumption that we bring to the text, not derive from it. Such an idea certainly does violence to the character of the Scriptures, which contain in themselves a wide variety of kinds of writing.
To get a fuller sense of what Paul is talking about here, it is worth taking more of a look at this Adam-story that we find in Genesis. “In the beginning, God created.” Depending on one’s perspective, we can say that our life—our world—is either “charged with the grandeur of God” (to recall Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem) or haunted by that same presence. We can respond to that divine grandeur in very different ways: either as a haunting against which we try to anesthetize ourselves—or as an enlivening (if somewhat risky) glory to be embraced.
Somehow, we find the impulses for both these responses in us. The Adam-story tells us of our creation in the divine “image and likeness.” We can therefore affirm, with God, the goodness of God’s creation. “And indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Nevertheless, we find transcendent longing in ourselves, as well—to which creation indeed points, but which creation itself can never satisfy. For such longing, we are called to look to the One who is the source of all good.
However, to use the Genesis imagery, all is not well in the Garden. We also find in these selves of ours, an undeniable sense of loss, estrangement—cut off, somehow, from Eden. We discover that we are working with means insufficient to reach our best and truest desire. And our predicament cannot be reduced to something “out there.” The problem is interior. Along with the remembrance of primal divine goodness, we find ourselves struggling with our present defining identity—our “Adam-ness.” We find, in the stuff of what we are, that we are working with a nature that has become—always, to some extent—betraying of ourselves and others.
This narrative is the counterpoint to what we hear from Paul today. Over against this, Paul affirms that, in Jesus, God has written a new story. In Christ, a new source of our identity is set forth. In another, closely related passage, Paul writes: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45) But what script—or, rather whose script—will we live out? In which Adam will our defining humanity be found?
The two Adams sum up two ways of being—each appropriated rather differently. The first, that of the primal human, almost isn’t appropriated at all; it just “is”—the life that plays out on its own accord, lived in accord with our nature as we now find it. The source-image is parental. We’re speaking here of what Paul would call the “fleshly.” This is the world defined by what we possess, what we earn. Its key words would be, “on our own.” Because we’re finite, such a path ultimately must lead to a dead end.
The way of being of the Second Adam is renewed creation. It’s not a matter of the life that “just is,” but of adoption, appropriated by faith, through the One who became our Brother. This is the world defined by the gift of God—and its key word is “Grace.” We live now out of the gift and in the sharing of gift. Because God is who God is, the journey of grace is inexhaustible. This “Road goes ever on and on.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter I, “A Long Expected Party,” Bilbo’s Song)
So, thanks be, in Christ, it’s not a matter of getting what we have coming. God has something much better in mind for us. Each day we re-address the questions: Which story is becoming our story? Will we live on our own or by the gift? In which Adam will we find ourselves? Whose people will we be? Each time we gather as the church for Eucharist, the gracious invitation is set forth: “The gifts of God for the People of God.”
The Episcopal Church’s practice concerning who it admits to the Sacrament of Holy Communion has significantly evolved in the last generation. That evolution is continuing. Certainly, we are called to uphold the sacredness of the Sacrament. But, less and less, are we inclined to see our role at the Altar rail as some sort of spiritual-cops-on-the-beat. We speak, authentically, of generous inclusion. Yet inclusion becomes meaningless if we have no sense of what it is we are welcoming people to! Anglicans have always conveyed much by the language we use in worship. So it is more than appropriate that we be mindful of what we say at our Eucharistic invitation. Something that only conveys, “You can get bread and wine up this-a-way” is inadequate. It isn’t being true to ourselves, others, or what is going on.
For all of us who are here, those who have attended for many years and first-time visitors, to get up from our places and draw near to the Altar when the celebrant says, “The Gifts of God for the People of God” is a remarkable thing to do—numinous; maybe even somewhat risky. When we draw near to receive, we are acknowledging that we have been claimed in a Christly claiming; we are acknowledging our profoundest need for the Life of the One who died for us. “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven; the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”
It’s not our way to hand out to folks as they leave church a comprehensive set of instructions on how it must be worked out. We’re living by the gift. It’s no more “our own” process. We can trust the God who has brought us this far to lead us on the journey.
But this we do affirm: that in this Christ-life, so generously given, we are borne into new creation. We’re in it together now. In ways almost always mundane and everyday, often fairly unremarkable, we find that neither we, nor our stories, nor our conversation, nor anything else can ever be quite the same.
“God’s act of grace is out of all proportion…where sin multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it.” (5:15, 20)