Though it has been my nickname for many years, it surprises me to be talking about sin today – “the wages of sin is death.” It is a trope among a certain segment of Christians that “no one preaches on sin these days.” In fact, this very thing popped up on my Facebook page this week – from a friend of a friend – “…heck we don’t even talk about sin anymore in our churches…” So on this Sunday when preachers all over the country are celebrating Independence Day and talking about the glories of the United States, I am going to try to talk about sin.
This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is fairly familiar and … this is when I am grateful to be part of a congregation where we all work at interpreting the text together.
When a text is particularly difficult, it can be helpful to read several translations or versions. We heard the Egalitarian translation this morning. Here is the beginning of the NRSV:
12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
As a person with an aversion to religious language, which we pretend to understand but often don’t, my mind starts to wander pretty quickly. Sin, righteousness, “members,” instruments of wickedness – later sanctification gets tossed in. I find the Egalitarian translation a little more helpful. … offer yourselves to God as people alive from the dead, and your bodies to God as weapons for justice.
For Anabaptists “weapons for justice” seems like an anomaly. Are weapons of justice used in “just war?” Even with the inclusion of “weapons,” the language of justice is more understandable than righteousness. Justice and righteousness might be nearly interchangeable but we don’t talk about righteousness much these days – unless we are glaring at self-righteousness. If Paul is trying to find opposites, sin and justice make more sense in our context.
Later on, it is not just that our bodies are “instruments of wickedness” or “weapons of injustice.” Paul says “you once were slaves of sin and impurity.” Slavery may seem distant today – though mass incarceration and human trafficking are present in this country and around the world. We are more likely to say that slavery is a sin than we are to use slavery as an analogy. But this analogy may be an apt one for the church in Rome. For the Jews in the audience, slavery is part of their defining story. It may also be a contemporary reality; there very well may be slaves in the church at Rome, and slaveowners. Slavery is not an abstraction for Jews or gentiles.
If readers today are offended or stymied by slavery language, The Message removes it, though “Master” is added in. Author Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is – Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. Instead of slavery, he writes about the “country where sin is sovereign” and “being out from under the old tyranny.” And that strange conclusion that is grammatically suspect – ‘The wages of sin is death”? Peterson renders that: Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death.
Historically as Anabaptists (and sometimes today) we have imagined that to live a life that is righteous, or not sinful, we must separate ourselves from what is impure. Some of the founders of this congregation came from the strand of Anabaptism that lived in segregated communities, with dress codes and strict rules about modernity – as if that was an inoculation against sin. It was imagined that living in a community of “obedience” we would be safe from the corruption of the world. While these intentions were noble, that kind of insular community is more like Paul’s definition of living under the Law than living in God’s Freedom.
This congregation has been living out faith in Washington DC and Hyattsville for 65 years. It was previously thought impossible for Mennonites to live in an urban setting if we were going to truly preserve and live the faith. We have discovered that faith is possible in this setting though it might seem peculiar, even sinful, to our more traditional Anabaptist siblings.
Living under grace, understanding our bodies not as weapons of wickedness but as instruments for justice, we find ourselves drawn to the very places that need justice, to places where sin is present. Aware of our own need for grace, we become open to taking our bodies to places where other bodies live amidst injustice and sin, where grace is needed.
Sometimes this looks like reaching out to a family from Syria that is struggling to adjust to life in this country. Sometimes it looks like working with other congregations in the Sanctuary Movement. Sometimes it looks like reaching out to people who live in tenuous housing or are homeless. An intention, almost 40 years ago, to bring justice to a few individuals living with intellectual disabilities has turned into Jubilee, helping not only individuals but actually helping to shift systemic injustice.
And sometimes we just offer each other grace, here in this place.
If we need multiple translations of the bible to begin to understand sin and grace, we also need analogies besides weapons and slavery and freedom. That is why I am so grateful for what I have learned about grace and sin from children.
Over the years I have had the privilege of participating in “the sacrament of reconciliation” with students from Christian Family Montessori School. As part of preparation for first communion, the students participate in reconciliation or what used to be called “confession.”
While it may seem strange to talk about sin with 7-8 year olds, the children learn about sin this way: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. In order for the branches to remain healthy and bear fruit, sap from the vine must flow through the branches. Sometimes there is a blockage, something gets in the way so that the sap cannot flow, and fruit cannot grow and ripen. This blockage that prevents the sap, or Spirit of Christ, from flowing freely is sin. Sin gets in the way of our relationship with God and with others and prevents us from bearing fruit.
When I meet with the children, I ask them if there is anything that gets in the way of them experiencing God’s love. Some children answer truthfully and joyfully, “No, there is nothing” that gets in the way of them feeling God’s love. Other children are quite aware of things they have intentionally done that creates anger or disappointment in their life. They recognize that something is in the way of the free flowing of the Spirit. And they recognize the need to make it right.
I am not able to give them penance like they might receive from a real priest. I do not try to solve the “blockage” for them. But I can offer them grace; I can tell them that God forgives them, that I forgive them, that God loves them. It is a joy to see the bounce in their steps as they return to their classmates, relieved of a burden and reassured that God’s love is always there for them.
This spring I participated in “reconciliation” with the 9-12 year olds. It made me wonder anew about the power that these “blocks” have in our lives and the power of confession. Each child spoke what they knew was getting in the way of full life, for them. It was inspiring to see the freedom the children seemed to experience when they named the blocks and received a word of grace and love.
It made me wonder what Mennonites are missing out on. What might it look if we had the opportunity to confess our sins on a more regular basis, not just during Holy Week when we write confessions and nail them to the cross. What would it look like to receive grace on a regular basis? How might our understanding of sin shift? How might our experiences of injustice and justice be changed? How might we be empowered to offer grace more often to others?
Another more concrete way to understand the difference between the Law and grace might be through the mystery of music. Think of that most famous song about grace, Amazing Grace. Let’s sing the first verse of Amazing Grace, in parts if you like, and do follow me. (singing in a very strict tempo with punctuated text, almost like a march.)
We were singing about grace. Did it feel like grace? Our words said grace but I didn’t feel grace, from me or from you. We adhered to the law of the notes and rhythm but was there grace? We might as well have been singing the words to a march or one of the many texts that fit to that tune, like House of the Rising Sun, or the theme from Gilligan’s Island.
Can we sing with grace, for each other, for the song, for the world? Let’s sing again. I will not conduct, just listen to each other, you know how to do this. (get them started and let them sing – as many verses as they want.) Now that was some grace, for each other, for our sinfulness, for justice, for the world.
What about trying something more risky, unpredictable, really living into grace, singing into grace, when we don’t quite know what might happen. Let’s sing this song as a round. Follow me or join in as you are ready. We’ll find a good place to stop. (sing as a round starting at the measure, with as many parts as we can.)
If we can somehow find a way to recognize and confess our sinfulness and the blocks that get in the way of Love; if we can find a way to hold together grace and justice and freedom; if we can find a way to sing grace and freedom and justice, people might begin to see that this whole church thing, this Jesus project, is needed in the world.
Thanks be to God, that though once you were slaves to sin, you became obedient from the heart to that rule of teaching imparted to you; freed from your sin, you became forever committed to justice… and received …God’s gift of real life.
(Turn to HWB 143 Amazing Grace. We will sing verses 3-6.)