Cosmic Battle with Sin
Pentecost 6, Proper 10 – July 16, 2017
My wife Carol and I watched the new Wonder Woman movie a couple weeks ago. I recommend the movie, not least of all because it is refreshing to see a superhero from a woman’s instead of a man’s perspective. And also, the Israeli actress and model, Gal Godot, is stunning as the superhero. I was reminded, once again, how the story of good battling evil continues to capture the cinematic audience and the human imagination. In the case of Wonder Woman evil is personified by the God of War who, in a surprise twist, turns out to be embodied in one of the supposed “good guys” representing the allies in World War I. Wonder Woman does not win the battle by herself alone. She’s aided by a team of seeming misfits. And the fight is not won without cost. The victory to defeat evil requires that someone who Wonder Woman loves, sacrifices himself to save human kind from terrible evil.
This is a theme that is played out not only in the action movies and comic books and hero stories and myths and fantasy-adventures, but also in the Bible. “Wretched man that I am,” Paul asked at the conclusion of last week’s Epistle from the end of Romans 7, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” Today, in Romans 8 we hear the wondrous good news about our rescue.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2)
Paul envisions a cosmic battle against the powers of Sin. Sin is no small matter for Paul and something much bigger than an individual doing the wrong thing or having bad thoughts in his or her heart. Paul refers to Sin or sins 60 times his letter to the Christians at Rome. Dealing with Sin is an important issue to Paul in this letter. Look at the sad résumé Paul builds for Sin’s achievements. Sin first came into the world through Adam (5:12-21). Having established a base of operations, Sin became an enslaving power, a slave owner and us Sin’s slaves (Romans 3:1-8, 6:16-20). The power of Sin holds human beings in its grasp. “Perhaps the most disturbing element in the résumé of Sin is the claim made in chapter 7 that Sin is capable of exerting power even over God’s law.” My N.T. professor in seminary, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, now at Baylor University writes:
Brought together these “achievements” of Sin’s résumé create the portrait of a cosmic terrorist. Sin not only entered the cosmos with Adam, it enslaved, it unleashed Death itself, it even managed to take the law of God captive in its power. This résumé of Sin’s accomplishments requires something more than a generous God who forgives and forgets, and something entirely other than a Jesus who allows people to improve themselves by following the example of his good behavior. Sin cannot be avoided or passed over, it can only be either served or defeated. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa,
magazine, July, 2004, Vol. 58, Issue 3; page 229, 12 pgs., Copyright Interpretation, July, 2004. Dr. Gaventa, currently New Testament Professor at Baylor University, was one of my favorite professors in seminary at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1979-1981)
What exactly did Jesus do to defeat the power of Sin and rescue us from death? And, if we are truly freed from Sin in Christ how come it is still so hard to do the right thing? The entire Gospel contains the good news that God sent Jesus his Son to be fully human like us, but unlike us to have the courage to live his life without Sin, in order that by dying for us on a cross he might break the power that Sin has over us and in rising from the grave he might invite us to share in his victory. In Romans 8:3-4 Paul wrote:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Through Jesus’ death for us on a cross and God’s power to raise him from the grave, we are freed from the power of Sin and Death. Alleluia! That’s wonderful news! The power of Sin and Death is broken. The chains that enslaved us are unlocked. We are emancipated. We are set free. If Christ lives in us his Spirit is implanted in us.
Have you ever known an alcoholic or drug addict caught in the throes of addiction? The truth is that addict might be a really good person, might really want to be sober and free of that power that robs him or her of dignity and hope and life and health, but no matter how hard he or she tries, the pull of addiction to that drug is stronger than our will power. More importantly have you ever known an alcoholic or drug addict who is in recovery through a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous? The 12 steps of AA pretty much come out of Paul’s letter to the Romans and describe how it is that Christ Jesus frees us from that power of Sin and death. Those first 3 steps. Step 1: We admitted that we were powerless – that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2: We came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3: We made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. Those first 3 steps are the vivid description of what it is like to truly experience that life-giving gift of Jesus breaking the hold that Sin and death hold over us. The first 3 steps could be roughly equated with the theological category of justification by faith. The other 9 steps are a description of the long process of sanctification, whereby we learn as disciples more and more to live whole and full and good lives to the glory of God.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
What Wonder Woman and some of my favorite epic adventure stories such as JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ringtrilogy or the 7-volume Harry Potter series by JK Rowling and our favorite comic book heroes all remind us, is that Sin is a cosmic force. Sin is much more than individual transgressions. Look around and see how the power of Sin infiltrates our world. We read or hear it every day in the news. Terrorism and war, cruelty and hatred, young children beaten to death by their own parents, racism, sexism, hunger, poverty and oppression,. Sin infiltrates our world at every level. Sheer power or magic or great courage, alone can never overcome the power of Sin and evil. That power can only be overcome by love, by cooperation and friendship and by great personal sacrifice. In their own way each of these stories points us to the true good news of God’s love come among us through Jesus.
To live, as Paul invites us in Romans 8 to live according to the Spirit as opposed to living according to the flesh, is to place yourself in the midst of that great adventure, in the midst of that heroic battle against the force of Sin that is constantly threatening to undo us and to undo our world. The struggle against Sin is not just a personal struggle to do the right thing, but a cosmic struggle in which God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, ultimately prevails.
We can now walk with some swagger, as people on the winning side of a great cosmic battle between Sin and God. But this doesn’t mean we walk “according to the flesh,” in a self-centered and self-serving way. Instead, it means we have the confidence to walk “according to the Spirit” (v. 4) – brave and bold enough to demonstrate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Only a winner is going to be confident enough to show these qualities. And fortunately, God has made us all winners. Jesus’ victory also inspires us to work together to advance God’s will in the world. (Homiletics Online, July 10, 2011, Christ in the Hallows)
We join Christ Jesus in the struggle against the cosmic force of Sin and death in the world. We join him in this ongoing battle knowing that his love has ultimately won the victory.