David A. Davis
August 4, 2019
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It never really dies, does it? Sin, I mean. It never really dies: my sin, your sin. That part of us which is so human, so distant from God. “Put it to death. Put to death…sin”, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Colossians, the church, you and me. Paul calls for the death of sin. But it never dies. We all know that. Preachers know that. Theologians know that. Paul knew that too. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:15-16). If it were only that easy; the death of sin. You know it. I know it. Jesus knows it. God knows it. What it means human. What it must mean to be God. It’s the power, the mystery, the grace, the wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ died for my sin and yet tomorrow, there I go. And Jesus still loves me. And Paul still exhorts me: “put sin to death.” Paul still calls for the death of sin.
Fresh out of seminary and only a few months into the weekly preaching role of ministry, a man old enough to be my grandfather told me I ought to be preaching about all these young people running around having sex. He wasn’t even a member of my congregation and we had just been introduced. I was 24 at the time. I wasn’t sure if he was including me in the demographic he was slamming but I was pretty sure he didn’t want me to not just preach about it but against it! When I came to Nassau Church 14 years later, and when I was still in the early days here, someone who was not pleased with my preaching came to see me. At one point the conversation took an unexpected turn when the person said, “When are you going to start preaching against the fornicators?” No one has ever asked me when I was going to start preaching against greed or anger or malice or lying.
“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)…you must rid of all such things: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another….” The Apostle Paul and those lists of his. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Paul’s lists. The fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians). The gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians). Nothing can separate us from God’s love: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” (Romans). No ever says the fruit of the Spirit is love and just stops. Or how about, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom….period”. Or I am persuaded that nothing can separate us from the one who loves us. Not death.” No one argues theologically or biblically that Paul’s lists are exhaustive and few people stop with just the first thing on the list accept when it comes to sin. No one considers Paul’s list’s prioritized or in order accept when it comes to sin.
Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)…you must rid of all such things: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another. The King James list is fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and filthy communication, lying. One contemporary paraphrase lists sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like, grabbing whatever attracts your fancy, bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk, and lying to one another. Who would not be able to find themselves somewhere in that list? Not just with your old immature, unfaithful yet earthly yet to be dead to sin self but with your self-self. Your self yesterday, your self today, and yes, your self tomorrow. Because it never really dies, does it?
For Paul, the death of sin (or the lack of the death of sin) is a theological question whose answer is rooted in Christ and his righteousness. It leads to conversations with loaded terms like justification and sanctification, repentance and redemption. To read Paul is to read a complex and profound argument about God and Jesus and us. But the list itself isn’t all that complex nor profound. Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)…you must rid of all such things: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another. It’s no surprise that Paul puts human sexual behavior first on the list. Paul is human after all. The surprise, the shock is that Paul keeps going with the list. The surprise is that when Paul calls for the death of sin, he calls for the death of all of it. The surprise is that everyone of us makes the list, pretty much all the time. The surprise is that, at the end of the day, sin is sin without gradation and Paul calls for the death of all of it. Promiscuity and bad temper. Lust and irritability. Wanting what is not yours, blasphemy, malice and just being mean.
Christ is all and in all, Paul proclaims. All in all. Paul unpacks that best right here in Colossians. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:15ff). Christ is all and in all.
When Paul’s affirmation of Christ’s reign over creation comes alongside “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free”, the church ought not to miss the notion that Christ is in places and persons one would never expect. All in all. Would that wide swath of the Christian Church that favors judgment over grace would remember Jesus is all and in all. When Paul’s affirmation of the “allness” of Jesus is paired with that list of sin, the follower of Jesus ought not forget that Christ is present in and relevant to your whole self, your life. There is no part of our lives and all of our brokenness that doesn’t matter to Christ. The biggest, most important, most precious aspects of who I am and the littlest, smallest details of how I live my life. All in all.
Slide up to the edge of your pew now because I am about to confess something to you. You know that intersection there on Nassau Street, the intersection at Washington Road with the Garden Theater, the Methodist Church, and Firestone Library. When you pass through that light, heading away from this church and toward Hoagie Haven, two lanes become one. If the person in the left lane is not turning left on to Vandeventer street, there is an awkward, rapid, unsafe merge. I drive that way pretty much every day. When I happen to be first in line waiting for the light to change, whether I am in the right lane or the left, for the longest time you would have thought I was at the starting line at the Indianapolis 500. I would gun it to win that race, that little game of chicken, looking over at my competitor only to see and hope that it wasn’t one of you. I asked Cathy one day, “is it me or are drivers getting more aggressive at that merge”? Then Jesus pointed out to me that speed racer here was probably the leader of the pack! Actually, that’s not language I use nor am I comfortable with the expression theologically, spiritually: “Jesus told me!” But my tongue is only partly in my cheek. Because I do think how I behave at the intersection matters….to God.
I fully understand that all sin, all behavior is not the same in terms of the consequences, impact, reality of life. For goodness sake early this morning in Dayton, Ohio there was a second mass shooting in 24 hours. It was the 250th mass shooting in the United States. 250th. I could just click on the sermon archive on the website for the way too many times I have preached about humanity’s sinful thirst for gun violence and the idolatry of the 2nd Amendment. Yes, there is sin and then there is sin. I get it. But here in Colossians, Paul is calling for the death of all it. So I take that to mean how I live my life, all of it, matters to God: promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like, grabbing whatever attracts your fancy, bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk, and lying to one another….and everything else.
A few weeks ago I read an essay in the USA TODAY entitled “At the Scene of a Fatal Car Crash, I saw Americans reveal their fundamental decency” You can guess the writers point. That in the worst of circumstances, people rise to their best. The writer described behaviors along the highway, the bridge collapse in Florida, and September 11th. Everyone, I think, understands the point, sees the point. But waiting for tragedy to expect decency seems like a strange bar to me. I don’t know whether that is a high bar or a low bar. When the Apostle Paul, the Gospel, and Jesus call for a life of more than human decency all the time. They call for the death of sin, all of it.
Everyone has someone in the family or someone they know that is a breakfast list maker. For the crowd that sits down to a breakfast every morning, some read the paper, some check their devices, some watch the news or sports center, some talk about the day with those they love, and someone is always making a “to do” list for the day. The list includes the big stuff and the little stuff like “pick up stamps or get milk or text dad.” Starting the day with some nourishment and your day planner.
Some nourishment and your day planner. Come to the table, to be fed and to take a look at your day, at your life, at your life in Christ…the one who invites you here. And today, this morning, at the Table, lift even the littlest of things to him. Because when you make that list, when you look at your day, your week, your month, when you look at you…Jesus cares about all of it. All of it matters to God.