September 5, 2021
It is said that the book of Romans was one of Martin Luther’s favorite books of the Bible. It was during his reading and study of Romans that Luther had his epiphany about grace, which led in time to his many writings and to his excommunication, and eventually to the formation of the Lutheran church. Luther wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church, not leave it to start a new one. And some have speculated that he would not have been too thrilled that this fledgling denomination took on his name. Well, whether Luther intended it or not, here we are – over 500 years later. And I don’t know about you, but I agree with Herr Luther that there is much to love about the book of Romans.
Here, in the eleven verses we read today, we have a treatise on sin and death, and on resurrection and new life.
I looked up “sin” in the dictionary, and it said sin is “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.” Okay… but is sin just an act? I mean, yes, we do sin against God and others with our acts, or our failures to act. But I don’t think this definition goes far enough. Sin is more than the sum of the transgressions we commit. Our sin is a state of being. We all live continually in a state of sin. Sometimes I like to think of it this way: we are in a state of sin; we commit individual sins. Even if we could somehow stop committing those sins, we would still be in a sinful state – we have fallen from the state of perfection and union with God that God intended for us at creation.
While I was pastor at Cross and Crown Lutheran Church in Rohnert Park, I had the pleasure of getting to know the Reverend Dr. Paul Harms, whose long and varied career had culminated in a 16-year professorship (professor of preaching) at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. He had retired 20 years before I met him. I would visit him in the nursing home where he lived and we would talk about theology and the state of the world – and then we’d share in Holy Communion. I treasure the memories of our talks. What a joy to hear stories and thoughts from this pastor, theologian, actor, playwright, and professor. Many times, when the state of our world came up, he would get very quiet. Then he would say, “Do you know what causes this?” S – I – N. He spoke dramatically and emphasized each letter with a pointed finger in the air. This image sticks with me. Dr. Paul Harms was a man who understood that we are all in this predicament – this state of sin.
It was this desperate predicament that had Luther in despair as he repeatedly went to confess his sins to the priest at the monastery. He felt overwhelmed by sin. He couldn’t get any relief. No matter how much he confessed, there was always more. He kept confessing individual sins, but he remained stuck in sin.
Those dictionary definitions I read earlier didn’t really fully define sin, in my opinion. Maybe I would have found what I was looking for in a different dictionary. Here’s what I was looking for: the Greek word that is translated “sin” is hymartia, and it means “to miss the mark,” like in archery. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we clean up the individual sins, we remain in a state of missing the mark. We continue to separate ourselves from God. We continue to not live into the love and joy and union with God that God intended.
Into this seemingly hopeless situation, God came to us, enfleshed, in Jesus. Even as we turned away from God in our sin, God came to be with us, to walk with us, to teach us, and to die for us. God chose to bring us home through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we have been given the sacrament of Holy Baptism as a sign and symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us.
A sacrament is ordinary things (water, wine, bread) that are transformed by the words that are spoken. Baptism is more than a bath; communion is more than a meal. What happens for us in baptism is truly remarkable – we are adopted by God; we die to sin; we are united with Jesus in a death like his and in a resurrection like his; the body of sin is destroyed, and we are no longer enslaved to sin; and we who have died with Christ will also live with him. As St. Paul says, “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
My baptismal anniversary is October 10. I was three weeks old when my dad baptized me. (I was his first baptism, fresh out of seminary.) God welcomed me into the family that day with a big I LOVE YOU! But did God love me on October 9? On the day of my birth? Before I was born? Yes – we have some scriptural backing for the idea that God knew us and loved us before we were born. I need the baptismal date as a way to remember. God doesn’t need the date. God has always loved me, even before October 10, 1965.
Do you remember the toy that had a paddle with a ball attached by a rubber band? When you play with that toy, the ball keeps coming back to the paddle. It’s tethered to it by the rubber band. That’s what my actual baptism date is like for me – it keeps me tethered to God. It reminds me that no matter how far I stray, God will always be there waiting. It reminds me that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, “he died to sin, once for all; [and] the life he lives, he lives to God.”
Theologian Karl Barth was once asked, “What in your judgment is the essence of the Christian faith?” After a brief pause, Barth replied, “Yes, I can summarize in a few words my understanding of the Christian faith. Let me put it this way: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
Baptized into Christ’s death, we now live in Him. While we still sin, we are no longer enslaved to it. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!