Paul teaches us in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans that because of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, death and resurrection that sin has no dominion over us, since we are not under law but under grace. This concept, that the law no longer applies to believers in Christ is a very important one, one that everyone should know in their hearts, but a very confusing one, because we are told by virtually everyone in our culture that if we break the law, there are consequences; and a price to pay for our actions i.e. steal a car and go to jail . . . murder someone and you forfeit your own life. Each Sunday we kneel in all humility and confess the sin in our souls that we have little control over and yet Paul tells us sin has no dominion, no control over us.
So we ask . . . which is it? Does sin control us or do we control sin’s effects over us?
To answer this question we must go back to our very earliest training about the rules. All of us at one time I am sure were given a coloring book and crayons in which to color in all the spaces to make a picture of one kind or another. In our very earliest attempts at this we were sometimes chastised for not staying within the lines. To scribble outside the lines was a definite no-no in the early fifties and sixties. Today of course, it is an accepted practice because we wouldn’t want to squash little Johnnie’s self-esteem; but back then it was a given that after some practice, one was expected to stay within the lines. As time went on, the lines became our friends, and many of us outlined the lines in color so that they would be more pronounced in our artwork.
Once we’d mastered the art of coloring, the book was changed; and all of a sudden there were no longer lines, but instead dots with numbers. It was up to us to now draw in the lines ourselves in a corresponding sequence of numbers; and to our surprise, a picture developed from these dots that we could again, color in as before. This new coloring book taught us to count as well as to stay within the lines. We found that if we got the series of numbers wrong, the whole picture would not appear as it was supposed to.
And then finally, when we had mastered number-pictures we were given another book, one that had no lines and no numbers. It was a very blank book of white pages. We were told that we could draw anything we pleased and it would be kept in that book for all time. The importance of this book could not be overstated, because the young artist’s work would be there for all time and for everyone to see. And so we set out on an imaginary journey of shadows and colors, all of them defined by a matrix of lines of how we saw the world.
And even today, if given a blank sheet of paper, all of us when asked to draw something, will start with an outline of the object we wish to portray and then, and only then, color it in. Why do you suppose we do that? It is because our drawings were once controlled and orchestrated by the lines of a coloring book, but now we control with our own minds where the lines lay in our work. The lines are still there in our imaginations, but they do not control us, we control them; for good or for ill . . . depending of course on how well we can draw.
The law of Moses, meaning the Ten Commandments, were given to the ancient people of Israel to be much like the lines in a coloring book that we just discussed. Step outside the lines, and break the law, and the consequences were severe. Stay within the lines and the community would live in harmony. And it worked, for the law of Moses was what separated the nation of Israel from all of its lawless neighbors. Where Israel had a law against murder and mayhem, its neighbors had no such written laws and ruled by ‘might makes right’ and the heavy hand of subjugation of the weakest.
The law worked, but the people saw their neighbors literally getting away with murder, so it wasn’t long before the Israelites rebelled and started to ignore the law, but to their great peril. Soon they forgot the law and were abandoned by God to the whim of their hearts and were sent off into slavery on various occasions only to be brought back as a nation after severe punishment at the hands of their oppressors.
When Jesus finally arrived on the scene, the scribes and Pharisees were keeping the letter of the law but disregarding the spiritual intention of the law, which was to promote peace and justice among all people. They even went so far as to write new laws that were never intended by God in order to hold the people as captives to the law. When a law was broken, there was no mercy; and hundreds of thousands were executed and tortured for little or no reason. The people were in affect slaves of their sin and lived in fear of breaking the law because of its consequences, both in this world and in the life hereafter.
The reason we were under the discipline of the law goes way back to the Garden of Eden and the original rebellion of man from God. We call this rebellion, the original sin which we each inherited from our forebears. It is this sin that, like a virus, infects all of humanity. We cannot escape its influence because it has a profound effect on our minds and bodies. The sorry truth is that we all hate, we all lust, we all covet, we all lie . . . we do things which we ought not and do not do the things we ought to do . . . and there truly is no health in us. And so before Jesus came into our lives, we were truly lost in our sins . . . and under the law, which sees only black and white, we were, all of us, damned souls because we had no way of paying the price for our transgressions.
But because Jesus came, a man who had no sin, no infection of sin, and offered himself, his life, as payment for our sin, we have been acquitted and set free of the law. But notice that we have only been acquitted – we have not been proclaimed innocent – much like a convicted inmate who is freed because another has taken his punishment, he is still guilty, but forgiven. And so, so are we free under the law because someone else has paid the penalty for our transgressions.
And that is why Jesus came to earth . . . that is to set us free from the dominion of sin and death. Jesus wiped the slate clean for all of us and for all time and gave us a new way of living . . . like a coloring book with no lines, we have been freed to be able to draw our own lines, that is to follow the law in our hearts, not because we have to out of fear of retribution, but because we want to out of love for God and a grateful heart and ‘as those who have been brought from death to life’. And so we must trust in God . . . and, you know . . . the more you know and trust the heart of God, the less you stress when you don’t know or understand all His ways.
Which leads us from drawing in the coloring books of the past to this life in the real world of here and now, and how to deal with our sins and the sins of our neighbors, while at the same time embracing the law of which we are now and forever been set free. And so we need to see the difference between what men see and what God sees . . . between reputation and reality.
John Stott writes that the distinction between reputation and reality, between what human beings see and what God sees, is of great importance to every age and place. Although we have responsibilities to others, we are primarily accountable only to God. It is before him that we stand, and to him that one day we must give an account [of our life]. We should not therefore rate human opinion too highly, becoming depressed when we are criticized [or] elated when we are flattered. We need to remember that ‘The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks only at the heart’. He reads our thoughts and knows our motives. He can see how much reality there is behind our profession of faith and how much life there is behind our facade.
We must consider always that though we are in the world, we are not part of it. Just as this building stands in this community enshrining the holy elements of the Holy Eucharist, it is a special building, a temple and a dwelling, set apart from the world for people to worship God in it . . . and so are you a temple of the most high separate from the world, yet in the world because Jesus dwells in you and you in him and that is why we proclaim Jesus as our Lord.
The two-word affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ sounds pretty harmless at first hearing. But it has far-reaching ramifications for all Christian believers. Not only does it express our conviction that he is our God and Savior, but it also indicates our radical commitment to him. The dimensions of this commitment are intellectual (bringing our minds under Christ’s yoke), moral (accepting his standards and obeying his commands), vocational (spending our lives in his liberating service), social (seeking to penetrate society with his values), political (refusing to idolize any human institution) and global (being jealous for the honor and glory of his name).
Jesus, for all intensive purposes is our king and we do well to honor those who honor him. That is why in today’s gospel Jesus is very specific in how to treat those who welcome you as a believer . . . “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen