The Power of Sin
Sermon preached at St Peter’s Church by-the-Sea
Narragansett, Rhode Island
July 2, 2017 / Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
by Andrew Kryzak
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
All this summer, and well into September, we will be working our way through St Paul’s letter to the Romans. We will hear a little chunk of it every Sunday. This letter is by common consent Paul’s masterpiece. In the words of one scholar, Romans “overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, [which is] the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and [Gentile] alike by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father.”
In today’s passage, Paul deals with a topic that has – for a variety of reasons – gone out of favor in the church. It’s a topic we hear about a lot, but which we don’t talk about a lot. Today, Paul names it. That topic is SIN. As Paul writes, “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” Who can say what he means by that?
Perhaps a story by way of illustration will be helpful.
When I was younger, let’s say eight years old, my best friend – Tim – and I would often gather at one or the other of our houses to play. My parents believed that video games were for other people’s children, and so at our house, our chief engagements were with our Ninja Turtles action figures or, as often, with LEGOs. My little sister, Lindsay, who is four years younger, would frequently join us.
I remember one particular day when Tim came over, and we went right up to my room and got out the LEGOs. Shortly thereafter, my sister appeared in the doorway and asked if she could come in and join us. “No.” I replied. “But I just want to play.” “No,” I said. “Get out.” This continued through several more exchanges, until finally I pushed my four-year-old sister to the doorway and closed the door in her face.
Some minutes later, I went to go down to the kitchen, and when I opened my bedroom door, there was my sister, sitting on the floor, playing quietly, all by herself, with her own LEGOs. In my mother’s words, “She was so devoted to you and wanted to be a part of your life so much that she was willing to sit on the floor outside your room just to be close to you.” And what did I do? I closed the door in her face.
This episode is one of the very few things in my life that I feel really and truly bad about. I had to call up my sister yesterday while I was writing this sermon to apologize – again. My parents were so affected by this at the time that my mother took Lindsay out for ice cream, to honor her.
Our tendency at this point, I think, is to let eight-year-old Andrew off the hook. “You were just a little boy!” we might say, and that’s fair. But the truth is that when my mother and my father sat me down and said to me, “How would you like it if somebody did that to you?” my reply was, “I wouldn’t have liked it very much.” I knew. I knew that I could have said, “Not right now, Linds, but could we come and find you a little later?” But in the moment, I didn’t think about that. In the moment, I didn’t think about my sister at all. I just wanted her out. Have you ever done anything like that?
This is what it means to be under the dominion of Sin. It is to be mindlessly, thoughtlessly, and instinctively self-absorbed.
When we read Scripture, and when we read our Prayer Books, and whenever we encounter the word SIN, we must understand that Sin is not an ethical concept. For Paul, Sin is not just your individual deeds and misdeeds. It is not just those things done and left undone. Paul recognizes Sin for what it is: it is a force, a power that is always acting on us, working in us to have its way. This is Sin, with an uppercase S, and it is the absolute antithesis of the power of the Holy Spirit, by which God works us. In the face of Sin, we are basically powerless. Next week, St Paul will put it this way, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I knew better, even at eight years old, than to shove my sister out of my room, but I couldn’t help myself.
If the power of Sin sounds like bad news, Paul has some good news: “But thanks be to God,” he writes, “that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” For Paul, each and every person has a choice. We can choose between the power of Sin, which leads to death, or the power of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, which leads to life.
It is always tempting to hedge on our faith. We’re all for Jesus on Sunday, but when the going gets rough, when we encounter evil, we tend to fall back on our own devices. It is seductive to believe that there is some combination of good deeds by which we can save the world. If everyone were just welcoming enough, or nice enough, or peaceful enough, everything would be okay. But this is us playing God, and it is Sin at its most lethal. The surest sign of Sin’s power is widespread consensus that it is nowhere to be found. To quote the movie The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
Where this leaves us is, as always, at the feet of Jesus, echoing the father of the boy whom Jesus cured: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” We are asked, each time we attend a baptism, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” We all know the reply to the question: “I will, with God’s help.” With God’s help. We are continuously in need of the grace of God to turn us from the power of Sin, and toward the love of God that is in Jesus Christ. When we repent, when we return to the Lord, it is only accomplished by our surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.
We are not promised that with Christ life will be easy, or that we will never know hurt, or harm. What we are promised is that those who come to God through faith in Jesus DO NOT GO IT ALONE. Christ has taken on Sin and defeated it, once and for all upon the Cross. God has done in Jesus what we could not do ourselves. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” This is why those who live in Christ share our Lord’s own traits: they are marked by humility, and kindness, and mercy.
So whom do you want to obey? Paul puts this question to the Romans, and he speaks to us as well. “Do you not know,” he writes, “that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”