April 4, 2010
William G. Carter
“Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.”
During Lent, we’ve been talking about the seven deadly sins. Those of us who have taken the trip have selected our favorites. And this spiritual journey has reminded us of what we already know. Sin is not merely something we do. It’s not only something we commit. Sin is a force in human life. Sin with a Capital S is a destructive power, and it will kill us. And as we moved toward the cross, we remember that Sin is what murdered Jesus.
It begins with Pride, the arrogance of pushing God from the throne and seating ourselves upon it. We heard also of Envy, as religious leaders conspired against Jesus because they desired the same blessing he had received. Greed worked on Judas, who sold out his Lord for cold cash. Human Anger grew into a god-like wrath that condemned an innocent man to crucifixion. Lust and gluttony, the twin sins of appetite and addiction, reduced Jesus to mere flesh and screamed out for more violence against him. Those who loved Jesus most slipped into Sloth, ceasing to pay attention to him and shrugging off God’s love and justice.
What killed Jesus? At least seven different variations of sin. They conspired put him on the cross. Sin is deadly. The Gospels are clear about that.
Yet this morning the news comes morning from a graveyard. Sin killed Jesus, but he is again alive. Every evil known to us turned on him, but he came back. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus is stronger than the forces that kill. Sin has the power to take life, but the mysterious power of God-in-Christ will give life back. That is what we struggle to understand today.
A few Easters ago, a couple of people were leaving church at the same time. They chatted on their way to the parking lot, both of them remarking on the big crowd, the exuberant music, and the enthusiastic spirit. “That’s how it should be,” one of them exclaimed, “because God raised Jesus from the dead.”
Her friend Jerry nodded toward the church building, and said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to say anything in there, but Easter needs to be something more than that.” Her name was Ellen, and she stopped cold in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she said.
Jerry said, “If all we’re doing on Easter is remembering some one-time event, something that happened once to somebody a long time ago, it is either a curiosity of nature or a fairy tale. But if God raised up Jesus, of all people, the same Jesus who was a victim of human cruelty and cussedness, it’s a sign to everybody that cruelty and cussedness don’t have the final power over our lives.”
It sounds like the sort of thing that the Apostle Paul was talking about in our scripture lesson. He is writing to some new Christians in Rome, and trying his best to answer a very practical matter. They have heard about the Gospel that he’s preaching. They know, at its heart, that the Gospel is about forgiveness. God forgives the sins that we have done. On the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them,” and in the mystery of grace, this is exactly what God the Father does. God cancels the power of the wrongdoing and does not hold it against them.
Imagine a couple of those city boys in Rome. They know they have been forgiven for all that they’ve done wrong. “So Paul,” they say, “Friday night is coming up. Since we’ve already been forgiven, since God is a forgiving God, does that mean we can go out and sow a few oats? God forgives us, right?”
Well, the Apostle Paul thundered back to the Romans and said, “No way!” Then he took a deep breath, put on his teacher’s cap, and reminded them of their first experience of faith. “When you were baptized in Christ,” he said, “you were sunk down into the water. The old ‘you’ was killed off. And when we were raised out of the water, we were alive again, a new creation.” There is death and resurrection – the mystery of Easter is worked out in our souls.
The insight here is tremendously important to our spiritual life. We die to everything that kills us: to the old habits, the destructive compulsions, the deadly behaviors. And in dying to such things, Christ raises us, brings us back alive, and fills us with his Easter life. Because of Jesus Christ, we need not be destroyed by deadly sins. We can hand them over, let them go, and let them die with Christ – for we have the very real hope that we will be raised with him. Life begins again.
In a book on leadership, Garry Wills writes about Harriet Tubman, the remarkable slave woman who led African slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. That invisible railroad came through these parts, and one of the whistle stops was in nearby Montrose.
Here’s the interesting thing: when Harriet Tubman was a teenager, she tried to stop the beating of a fellow worker. Her master hit her on the head, and the blow broke her skull. Harriet lingered near death for weeks. For the rest of her life she suffered from occasional catatonic spells due to the injury. But the injury also set her free.
As Wills writes, “The blow that cracked Tubman’s skull struck off her psychic chains. She had already died once; she had nothing to lose.” Ever notice? Sometimes people can have an experience when they were as good as dead; and when they emerge, everything is fresh and new. They are not bound and held captive as they once were. In a very real sense, life begins after something has died.
Paul says this experience lies at the heart of the Christian life. We die to ourselves – our whims, our consuming obsessions – and we live to God. All the powers that damage and destroy don’t have any dominion over us.
A man was talking about his gambling problem. It started small: a few lottery tickets, the football pool. Before he knew it, he was taking grocery money and losing it in the slot machines. He said it got worse. “I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost everything dear to me. I wanted to lose my life; then I realized I already had lost that life. That was the day when everything began to turn around.”
That may sound harsh to a lot of us. Some of us would like to get by on our own steam. Sure, we might get into a little trouble now and then. But we never give up anything, nor do we take on anything. It might not make a lot of sense when Paul says we cannot live unless the old life has died. And yet, I have seen people raised from the dead. Something was killing them – and then they let go of it, and began to live.
I was talking with a woman in the hospital. She was there because she lost her gall bladder. But she wanted to talk about losing her life. She said, “I married a man when I was twenty, and our son was born six months later. Shortly after that, my husband drove off and never came back. I didn’t know if I could make it, if my son could make it.” But God raised her up - and I saw her sitting in church last Sunday. Sixty years later, that ending became her beginning.
This reminds me of the last words that Gracie Allen had for her husband George Burns. She had died, he was full of sorrow. One day he found a note in her handwriting. It read, “George, never put a period where God has placed a comma.” There is death, and then there is life.
We know about death. We lose jobs. We lose people dear to us. We lose the habits that we worship, and the tyranny of our appetites may be killing us. Yet Easter announces that the God who gives life is stronger than every one of these deaths. Can sin still kill us? Sure, it can kill – but sin is already dead. Its ultimate power died when Jesus died. All the deadly sins were thrown at him on the cross, and he took them with him into the grave.
And now he is alive again. By the grace and power of God, Jesus - in his humility and laughter - is mightier than the powers that think they can destroy us. “Those who have died with Christ” says Paul, “are those who have been brought from death to life.” Or as Saint Francis offers in the last line of his famous prayer, “It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.”
This is our Christian hope. So fear not, little church. Trust in a God who is stronger than the works of death. Thanks to what God has done in Jesus, we are completely, joyfully alive!
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved