Bad News/Good News
There are no audio or video file uploads at this time
I remember being young and in the car. Driving through rural areas you would sometimes see signs that farmers would post in their field with Bible verses on them. One of these which I remember (which makes me think I was seeing it regularly – probably in my Bruce County days) had Romans 3:23 on it – “For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.”
We’re talking about sin today. This is one of those “Why don’t they ever talk about sin in church?” Sundays if you’re ever asked or heard the question.
I am in no way against bible verses being displayed on signs, but the thing about making one particular verse known is that you might be missing something fundamental to the Good News of Christ Jesus. I believe it was Frederick Beuchner, one of my favourite writers who died recently who said “Before the Gospel is good news, it’s bad news.” “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is the bad news. I wish those farmers would have had a chance to display multiple signs like those Burma Shave ads of so long ago (look that up). The next sign might have read something like – “They are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” This is where we are going to get so stay with me through some really difficult talk about sin.
If you don’t like the word sin, you can think of it in terms of how it’s been described as an acronym which I’ll modify somewhat to make this PG – HPTMTU (the human propensity to mess things up). We can consider sin in terms of a system error if we’re of a more technological bent – a flaw in the human system that leads to errors in the ways in which we relate to one another, ourselves, the planet, God.
It's a system-wide failure. It goes beyond individuals, and it affects everything. It is the shadow that throws into sharp relief the light of God’s grace. I don’t want us to forget about grace even in this look at the latter part of Romans 1.
What Paul is saying flows in a series of subordinate clauses. Each new clause is dependent on the one that precedes it.
“14. Both to Greeks and barbarians, both to wise and foolish, I am under obligation (to preach the gospel), 15. For that reason, my purpose is also to preach the gospel even to you who are in Rome (Why even in Rome?) 16 Because I am not ashamed of the gospel. (Why am I not ashamed of it?) Because it is God’s power for salvation for everyone who believes, Jew first and also Greek. (Why to everyone who believes?) 17 Because God’s righteousness is revealed in it from faith for the purpose of faith, just as Scripture says: ‘The one who is righteous by faith shall live.’ (Why is God’s righteousness needed in order to live?) 18 Because God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against impiousness and wickedness of those people who are suppressing the truth by wickedness. (How do we know they are suppressing the truth out of wickedness?) Because what is known of God is plain to them. (Why is it plain to them?) 19 Because God made it plain to them. (But how can it be plain to them?) 20 Because God’s unseen attributes, both his eternal power and deity are from the creation of the world perceived through the things God has done. (But why then the wrath?) 21 Because although they knew God they did not glory in him as God or give thanks to him, but they were made foolish in their reasonings, and their stupid minds were darkened. (What is the result of all that?) 22 Thinking they were wise, they fell into stupidity, 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans and birds and animals and reptiles.
These are the shadows that throw into such sharp relief the good news of grace. Do not let us get confused or put off by talk of idols and say “Well who worships idols anymore anyway?” Some have said that the root of sin is pride. It is true that one of the ways sin can manifest itself is in pride, particularly if we are privileged enough to have something about ourselves of which to be proud. For Paul here, though, the root of sin, the essence of sin – the essence of where everything has gone wrong or the essence of the human tendency to mess things up – is idolatry. Idolatry simply means substituting some other than God the Creator as the object of our worship and the one worthy of lordship. The temptation is to put ourselves on equal footing with God - to fail to recognize God’s status as creator and ourselves as creations contingent on the love and grace of our Creator. The temptation is to believe the lie that we have no need for God – to believe the lie that freedom consists primarily in getting to do what I want to do. The question is not whether or not something will have lordship over us, but what kind of lordship will it be? Myself? Wealth? Entertainment? Bread and circuses? Power? Christian nationalism (and how antithetical to the whole Kingdom project is a notion like Christian nationalism?)
Sin is not simply people doing things they shouldn’t do (or not doing things they should do) and feeling badly about it. Idolatry effects everything. It’s systemic. It’s a system failure, putting something else in the place of God. Someone has compared it to a crowded party at which one of the guests who is in the middle of giving a toast, collapses suddenly and dies. Everyone at the party knows what happened. It’s an event that needs to be acknowledged. Call 911. Call the coroner. Advise relatives. Reflect on our own mortality. The one thing we can’t do is willfully suppress the truth. The one thing we can’t do is continue the party as if nothing happened. If we continue to eat and drink and dance while there is a dead body in the middle of the room, everyone at the party becomes complicit in a kind of falsification of everything that’s happening. In the same way, idolatry or sin becomes systemic. It effects any ideology, religious system, institution, economic system, form of government, technology, you name it. On a personal level, it can even affect things like acts of service when we do them so that people will think well of us or our main concern, in general, is how they make us look.
God’s wrath here is not thunderbolts from on high, but God giving us a free hand. “God gave them up” does not mean that God abandoned us. It means rather that God let us undergo the effects of our forgetting God that we might learn how our way leads to harm and futility rather than well-being and meaning. Idolatry does not just exist in the spiritual realm, but it manifested physically.
The list of ways in which idolatry is manifested physically does not include every way in which we mess things up. It provides, rather, an illustration. It reflects the disordered relationships between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another, that result when we put something else in place of God. The list begins with examples of disordered sexuality. As one commentator I read (and I read a lot) put it, exegetically speaking Paul is clear here in naming homosexual acts as an example of disordered creation. The debate that is going on (and will go on) is how we, as followers of Christ are to interpret Paul’s words – particularly in light of what has come to be known in terms of sexuality and sexual orientation, and in light of our own experiences and the experiences of others including followers of Christ and those whom we know and love. Is homosexuality a vice that is chosen? Is it a “natural” mode of sexual expression for some? Is it a sexual sin incompatible with the kingdom of God or is it acceptable in a chaste or covenantal relationship? What about all the other kinds of sexual disorders from pornography to human trafficking? Let us have those conversations with grace and humility and love. Let us not be quick to break fellowship over them. Let us continue to ask the question in all circumstances “What does love call for here?” Let us remember too that the Roman Vice list here includes destructive behaviours like covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, insolence, haughtiness, boasting, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. Many of these are not so much vices of weakness but vices that we go to when we consider ourselves strong – haughty, boasting, gossiping (thank God I’m not like that guy), slander (thank God I’m not like that guy). Let us remember how Chapter 2 starts – “Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others, for in passing judgement on others you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” To paraphrase that sign in the farmer’s field, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless, there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive”
Before the gospel is good news, it’s bad. Then it’s good. Going back to Frederick Beuchner, this passage I want to share comes after a story of Henry Ward Beecher, a 19th-century American preacher/social reformer/lecturer/abolitionist who travelled to Yale on January 31st, 1872 to deliver the first of the Beecher Lectures on preaching. Beecher was in the middle of a scandal about him and a parishioner’s wife which had gone beyond the whispering stage to the printed stage and would soon reach the legal stage. Beecher had no idea what he was going to say at this lecture. While he was preparing, he looked in the mirror ready to shave, his face lathered with shaving soap. His biographer reported that it dawned on Beecher all of a sudden while standing there before the mirror. Beecher knew what his lecture would be about and he went to write some notes. Beecher realized something about his humanity and his need for grace. Just a man in need of God, in need of mercy, in need of grace. While he continued to think it out, excited as he was, Beecher cut himself quite badly with his razor. Beuchner describes it like this – “The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror… what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob… But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for…the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen to him… Henry Ward Beecher cheats on his wife, his God, himself, but manages to keep on bringing the Gospel to life for people anyway, maybe even for himself… Zaccheus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint. Paul sets out a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes back a fool for Christ. It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world he carries on his back like a snail, but for God all things are possible…”
“But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed… “ The covenant faithfulness and justice of God has shone on us. The righteousness that was “attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Let this come before that sign – “For there is no distinction since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” and then “they are now justified (forgiven, pardoned, made right, righted) by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
But now… In Jesus God has proven himself to be faithful to creation, and we are invited to be faithful to him. In Jesus, God has responded to our rebel hearts and shown his will to bring rebel humanity back to him. Our answer need only be one of trust. Jesus is God’s demonstration of grace and our hope of receiving grace.
We all declare an allegiance to something. We all call something “Lord.” An acceptance of the lordship of God through trust in Jesus reshapes our view of everything, in a more powerful way even than sin tainted everything. We are no longer forced to prove ourselves worthy to whatever it was that we worshipped, whether that object of worship was ourself, created by us, or represented a distorted/disordered view of God. We are accepted by God through trust in the love and faithfulness of God’s son. This means that we can live open-handedly rather than trying to grasp on to as much as we can get. To live in this trust is to open our lives to others; to turn concern for self to concern for them. It is to experience relationships with God and with others that are shaped by gratitude for God’s grace which is given to us as a gift, rather than something that we have to try to somehow earn.
This is the good news of the Gospel dear friends. May God help each of us to hear and to live it.