Based on Romans 6:1-14.
About eight years ago, a friend gave me Gandhi’s autobiography and said that I should read it.
Have you ever seen how thick that book is? And technical? But, read it I did. I slogged through it, sometimes amazed at Gandhi’s life, and other times in shock at the extremities he put both him and his family through.
When I finally finished, I went for coffee with my friend to discuss it, and his words to me were, “You actually finished it? Wow! I couldn’t get past the first few chapters.”
But, there was at least one story that has stuck with me all these years that I’m going to paraphrase.
Gandhi was a Hindu, and was having a conversation with a Christian. They were discussing sin and redemption and grace.
The Christian guy said, “Listen. You’re going to sin. It’s impossible to live without sin. That’s why we believe in grace.”
Then Gandhi said, “Yeah, but no. I’m not looking for redemption from the consequences of sin. I’m looking to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather, the very thought of sin.”
And then the Christian scoffed. “Good luck with that. You won’t succeed.”
And then Gandhi wrote in his book, “And the brother proved as his word. He knowingly committed transgressions, and showed me that he was undisturbed by the thought of them.”
Sin away, because there’s grace.
This is where our text starts this morning. Should we keep sinning so that grace can increase? Or course not. That’s ridiculous.
The apostle Paul says that our old self was crucified with Jesus. He tells his readers to consider themselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus! Sin is no longer our master!
Which leads me to ask the question… So how’s that whole not-sinning thing working out for ya? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
To be very honest with you, this text puzzles me. I’m not sure what to do with it. It’s confusing.
On one hand, the guy that Gandhi talked to is obviously missing the point. Not feeling bad about sinning because you seek forgiveness after is quite silly.
But on the other hand, if all we’re doing is trying harder not to sin, that’s pretty depressing. Not only will we fail miserably, but usually what happens is we start pointing fingers at others whose sins we declare worse than our own, and then we either kick them out, or go start a new church.
And just in case any of us think that we’ve got this whole “not sinning” thing figured out, we read in the book of James “Anyone who knows the good they ought to do, but doesn’t do it, is guilty of sin.” James 4:17. No wonder some people didn’t want the book of James to be in the Bible.
Or, to put this conundrum another way, have you ever caught yourself thinking things like this?
“I know which church that person goes to! They should know better!”
“Oh. Your child will be fine. All the teachers in that school go to church.”
“Nobody ever said that Christians wouldn’t sin. Christians are just forgiven.”
“Think of all the clergy abuse stories that we now know of. How can people who are forgiven sin so badly?”
“Nothing you can do can make God love your more, and nothing you can do can make God love you less.”
“God hates sin, and can’t stand it. You need to confess that to get right with God.”
It’s not quite so cut and dry, as we would sometimes like it, is it? If going to church, or being a Christian, or trying harder not to sin, or trying harder to be holy, might not work out all that well, what’s the point of it all? Why even bother? I mean, if Christians can lead the crusades, torture people, abuse children, order drone strikes, and lie and steal like the rest of the world, all while believing that God is love, and that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, what’s the point of it all?
Maybe, we could ask it like this: Is transformation possible? Or: If it’s not only a matter of “trying harder”, what does transformation look like?
All this, on a long weekend too!
Let’s pick up this question of transformation with a story, as told in Jamie Arpin-
Ricci’s new book, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick.
“Wipe that smile off your face, prisoner!” said the deputy commander of the concentration camp. This was the man who had condemned the men to die of starvation in order to deter other prisoners from attempting escape. His cold pragmatism chilled the priest to the bone.
“It has been two weeks and you seem to be the last man alive Characteristically stubborn and defiant, as usual,” the commander sneered at the kneeling priest, who bowed his head and said nothing. “Do you think you have accomplished anything here? Do you think taking the place of one condemned man – who will die anyways – will give meaning to your life?” The priest said nothing..
“Very well”, he added, “this bunker is needed for more important matters. Prisoner number 16770, I herby sentence you to immediate execution. Bring the needle!” A camp doctor entered nervously, a readied syringe in his hand. Approaching the prisoner, he glanced back and forth between the priest and the captain, not sure how to proceed. Without word, the priest raised his arm, offering it to the doctor, nodding to him with a look of such compassion that it was as though he was forgiving the man for what he was about to do.
This is how Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe was martyred, giving his life to spare that a Polish Army sergeant who lived until the age of 94, seeing his family grow and expand over generations. (Pages 14-15 – Read my review of the book here).
Well, it would appear that within the Christian tradition, there aren’t only stories of sin, but also remarkable stories of transformation. And every time I get cynical about Christianity, and think it all might be horse manure, I remember stories like these and think “There’s something going on here.”
Let’s start with the idea of grace. Not big G Grace Mennonite Church, but little G grace, as in an undeserved gift. I think to some extent, we understand this. We understand that God doesn’t treat us as we deserve, that life isn’t about legalistic rules, and that following Jesus is a gift that’s available to all of us.
Dallas Willard takes this idea of grace, and builds on it in a way that I have found helpful. He understands grace as an undeserved gift from God, but adds that it is also when God helps us do something that we could not do on our own. Grace is also when God helps us to do something that we could not do on our own.
Because of grace, the Amish in Nikkel mines were able to not only go and sit with the family of the man who killed their children, but also set up scholarships for his kids.
I am continually amazed by the story of Cliff and Wilma Derksen, who, for over 30 years, have relied on God’s grace to help them work through the loss of their daughter Candace, and work through what forgiveness looks like.
In the news these days, one of the two brothers who set off the bomb during the Boston Marathon was found guilty, and they were deciding if he will face the death penalty, or life in prison. I remember reading in the headlines very different responses. One of them was by a runner who was uninjured, who declared that he should die, and that she was a veterinarian, so she could fly down there and do it herself.
Another response was by the parents of Martin Richard, an 8 year old who died that day. I read their story this week, and I sobbed and sobbed. The father had to leave his dying son to go save his daughter’s life. 2 years later, as they were trying to figure out how to best remember their son, they kept coming back to a picture they had of him at a peace march, holding a sign that said, “No more hurting people – Peace.” And so they were advocating that the young man who killed their son be spared the death penalty.
Unfortunately, their pleas didn’t work, and on Friday the young man was sentenced to death.
We often think of the saints as these amazing people who are not like the rest of us. But really, the Derksens are normal Mennonites from Winnipeg, the Amish are normal farmers from rural Pennsylvania, and the Richard family are normal parents in Boston.
Where do these people get this grace from? How do they experience this transformation? It’s as if they’re dead to sin, alive in Christ. It’s as if sin is no longer their master, but grace is.
To quote Dallas Willard again: “Saints burn up more grace than sinners ever could.”
Can we experience this kind of transformation? Well, based on the above stories, I would venture to say, yes, transformation is possible. For everyone, including you and I.
And, I usually hate nice, little, two step sermons, but I keep coming back to two ideas that I think are the foundation for transformation, and without them, I think our ability to truly be transformed is limited.
- I think that we can adapt the first two steps from Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step from AA is: We admit that we are powerless over alcohol, that our lives are unmanageable. The second step is to believe in a Power greater than ourselves who can restore our sanity.
For us those of who aren’t in AA, I think we can adapt it to: We are not in control of our lives, or the world. But we believe in a God who is with us.
This runs completely opposite to almost everything that we’ve been taught in the Western World. We are responsible for our own lives. If we work hard, we’ll experience success. If we don’t like our government, we can vote them out, even if it’s been 44 years. We believe that we are in control of our destiny.
And while some of this is true, and important, it’s not the whole story. Because sometimes, we have a health crises. Or someone we love dies. Or there’s a car crash. Or cancer. Or a bomb at a marathon. Or we lose our jobs. Or an unexpected pregnancy. Or our kids make decisions that keep us up all night. Or an economic crises that wipes out our retirement funds. Or an earthquake. Or a tornado. Or a war starts. And then, then, we realize that, our control over life is more or less an illusion.
We are not in control, we’re part of something bigger, we need God’s grace to help us do something beyond ourselves, and that’s the first step to understanding transformation.
- Our spiritual disciplines matter. Our prayer practices matter. These things shape us more than we know. The Amish prayed the Lord’s Prayer often, (…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us), so forgiving the man who sinned against them wasn’t a totally foreign concept.
As I was reading about the father of the 8 year old who died in the Boston Marathon bombing, he spent hours in a rocking chair, alone, reciting the peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where is injury, pardon. Where there is darkness, light. Where this is sadness, joy.” I don’t think he just woke up and decided that the man who killed his son should live. There’s more going on there.
Or, as I posted on my Facebook wall in August, “I’m reading Game of Thrones, and after the third book I have come to this conclusion: If every character started off their mornings with 15 minutes of silent, contemplative prayer, plus a little bit of asking God to bless their enemies, then there’d be a whole lot less killing and chaos in Westeros.
This is probably quite applicable to non-fiction narratives as well.”
If ISIS prayed for their enemies, I really believe they’d have a hard time killing them. And if the we prayed for ISIS, and asked God to bless them, then we’d have a hard time supporting the effort to degrade and destroy them.
Or, as St. Francis says, “I consider my enemies my friends, because it shows me that I don’t yet know how to love.”
Our spiritual disciplines, our prayer practices, they matter. This is also why I think coming to church matters. No matter how crazy my week is, no matter how bonkers my kids are, or how stressed I am, or how little sleep I got, at least for one hour a week I will pray a little, read scripture a little, sing a little, and learn a little, with the hope that these practices will shape me.
I want to give honesty to the fact that there are both sinners and saints inside the church, and outside the church, both within Christianity and outside of Christianity. That we’re all capable of great evil, and that we’re all capable of great acts of grace and reconciliation.
But, I believe that if we continually root ourselves in something bigger than ourselves, something inviting us beyond our own little worlds, and engage in practices that nurture that, then I think we’re on the right track to transformation, on the right track to grace being our master.