The Powers of Sin & Death in Romans 8
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
Sermon #193 St. James the Less #100 7/19/20
Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Paul & Romans
Over the past few weeks we have been drudging our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I really feel for whoever is our reader every Sunday. We all could play bingo with the keywords that come up every time we hear this epistle read. “The Law, sin, death, and the flesh.” You could check off all these words in less than three minutes.
It’s sometimes hard for us to remember that this was a letter—a physical letter that Paul sent to the small group of Christians in Rome. It sounds more like a PhD-level dissertation than a letter from a stranger they had never met before.
This is deep stuff that Paul is talking about, even for his original audience. Remember the Apostle Peter admitted that he couldn’t always understand what Paul was saying (2 Peter 3:16). So it’s okay if you and I are scratching our heads when we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are in good company with St. Peter.
But even if Paul is hard to read, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to understand his argument. What he lays out here in Romans is the foundation of Christian theology. He is THE standard.
I will admit that I’ve struggled to understand the complexity of what Paul is saying in this letter. I can read his words, but in the back of my head I hear the voices of the Protestant Reformation and preachers in the Bible Belt shaping my understanding of what Paul is saying. Phrases like “saved by grace” conjures up images of tent preachers and altar calls though I’ve never been a member of a church like that. You may have a similar struggle when you hear Paul.
What we all need is a guide; someone we can trust who will strip away that personal baggage and help us uncover what Paul was actually trying to say to the first century Christians in Rome.
Recently I found my guide, and she’s an 83-year-old rock star. Well, not an actual rock star, but a star in the Episcopal Church: her name is Fleming Rutledge. She’s one of the best and brightest preachers and writers we have nowadays.
This past week I was listening to a podcast that interviewed her. The hosts were oohing and aahing over her, just like I do when I read her books.
There’s one thing she said that I’ve been thinking about all week as I’ve been reading Romans 8. She said that there are many different arguments against Christianity, but one in her opinion is the hardest for Christians to explain.
And it’s this: Christians claim that Sin and Death have been vanquished by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and yet the world doesn’t look any different; Sin and Death seemingly still reign over the world.
That’s a hard one for us to argue against. How can we talk about the Kingdom of God reigning here on earth when the world is just as broken and violent as it ever was?
This is a serious objection to the Christian view of the world, but you know who was willing to meet those objections head on? Paul. And we find a well-crafted argument for the Kingdom of God amid the present suffering in this dense letter to the Romans.
There is no doubt Paul is hard to read. If we were to survey a group of Christians, I bet 99 percent would rather read one of Jesus’ parables than dig into the convoluted maze of Paul’s mind. But Paul in Romans 8 addresses head on the issue of Sin and Death’s reign over us even after they were seemingly conquered by Jesus on the cross.
To even begin to understand what Paul is saying here we must realize that he sees Sin and Death not merely as things that humans do or what happens at the end of our life, BUT as semi-autonomous Powers that rule over the world.
This is where Fleming Rutledge has helped me understand Paul and how he talks about Sin and Death. Death is not just a natural cause, but Rutledge says that it is an agency, along with Sin, which are antithetical to the will of God.
Sin is so much bigger than how we typically discuss it in the Church. We usually talk about Sin on an individual level. “I told a white lie here or there. I took something that wasn’t mine.” It never gets bigger than my little world around me.
Rutledge rightly says, “We believe that we can resist Sin (not that we call it that!) by ‘making good choices,’ and Death we keep at bay simply by not thinking about it, or by domesticating it. [But] the biblical story places us correctly within a completely different worldview” (202).
For the biblical writers, including Paul, Sin and Death are not mere obstacles that get in between us and God, but rather they are active forces that are diametrically opposed to God and are capable of commandeering human agents to do its work in the world. The greatest danger for the modern church is not taking these Powers seriously, or by taming them in our minds by only talking about them simply on an individual level.
Paul in Romans painstakingly shows how these Powers are not only the enemy of God and his creation, but that these Powers entered the human story because of us.
The great sin of Adam—of humanity—was that we felt that WE, rather than God, could be the judge of good and evil. I mean think about it: We as humanity feel like we can be the sole judge of our actions, and we will gladly judge other’s actions as well, free of charge.
Because of this Original Sin, this desire for autonomy from God, all humanity—and even all creation—has been in bondage to these malignant Powers of Sin and Death.
That is the problem humanity found itself in, and humanity had itself to blame. Because we were under the bonds of these Powers we would not be able to free ourselves.
It would have to be God—it could only be God.
Only a perfect Being could help an imperfect creation. Only God could right all wrongs. And it was God who addressed the Powers and faced them head on when he was nailed to the cross.
Only God through his final judgment upon Sin and Death could they be “annihilated as though they had never existed” (Rutledge 600). Our redemption and release was done solely by God for us. This is a major point for Paul. We could not gain righteousness by our own means. He is the sole source of our salvation.
Paul’s message addresses the powerlessness of humanity in this situation. No amount of human potential or human possibility could change our situation. We could not use our brilliant minds to think our way out of our sinful situation. Instead our ability to be freed was only through the power of God (Rutledge 553).
And so Paul uses terms like grace and adoption to convey the powerful message that we did not do this on our own; in fact, we could accomplish none of this for we were slaves to Sin, but because of God we are now able to be adopted into his family and to become heirs of his kingdom.
We pride ourselves on our achievements and accomplishments, and yet we are made righteous not because of any of our actions but because of God’s loving sacrifice on the cross.
Our great sin was that we wanted to be the judge of good and evil, and by Jesus’ actions, we have been displaced and deposed as judge and Jesus took the judgement that we all deserved. He is our Judge and yet totally for us, he did it all for us.
Now and Not Yet
Now that is the great gospel message that has been preached around the world for the past two thousand years, and yet little has seemed to change. There are still wars, genocides, corruption, and extreme poverty.
We claim that everything—absolutely everything changed when Jesus died on the cross—we are delivered from the Powers of Sin and Death, yet Paul says, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…and we ourselves…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.”
The kingdom of God is here, and yet not fully. Sin and Death have been crippled, their destruction is imminent, yet they still roam the world destroying whatever they can.
And so, we wait for the redemption of not just ourselves (and our individual sins), not just our friends and family, but for the redemption of the entire cosmos. We wait in hope that all things will be made new; that the cosmic Powers of Sin and Death will be annihilated as if they never existed.
Through the waters of baptism our relationship with God has forever changed; we have received the spirit of adoption and are now children of God and heirs to his kingdom.
Some may say when they look out into the world nothing has changed. God’s kingdom doesn’t look any closer to coming, and the fruits of that kingdom seem nonexistent at times.
But my prayer is that when they look at us, they will see a son or daughter of the King—an ambassador of the One who died for them and will come again in great triumph on the Last Day. Until then we must groan with all creation, but our groan is tinged with hope.
Because of everything God has done for us, how could our groan not be tinged with hope?
7th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 11. Year A. Romans 8:12-25. Fleming Rutledge The Crucifixion. Photo by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash