(Romans 5: 12-19)
In our Sunday morning Learning Circle we just started a Lenten study entitled; Entering the Passion of Jesus, A Beginners Guide to Holy Week. It’s written by Amy-Jill Levine who is our favorite Jewish expert on the gospels. This is our third Amy-Jill Levine study and we can’t understand why she’s not a Christian as she gets it better than most Christians. In the Introduction she talks about atonement which, according to Merriam-Webster means; reparation for an offense or injury. To make it easier they even include a kids’ definition which defines atonement as; a making up for an offense or injury. In common parlance it means getting it right or setting things straight. You know, asking; What did I do? What should I have done? How can I make it right?
Amy says that we might think of the term “atonement” as meaning “at one-ment”, as in being at one with one another, being reconciled. She says that, for us Christians, Lent is a period of atonement, which is a time to repair past wrongs. She says that the cross represents atonement between humanity and divinity, in that Jesus takes the responsibility for the sins of human beings and cancels them out with his death. Jesus, she writes, is about to give up his life, which requires determining what a life is worth. And that means we all have to determine what our own lives are worth. We have to ask ourselves soul-searching questions like; What is worth dying for? What is worth living for? And, what are our values, and have we lived up to them? Those of us who have participated in any of her studies really appreciate how she simplifies what appears to be a complex issue wrestled with over the ages by learned theologians. Jesus, she says, is about to give up his life which should cause us to wonder what God thinks our lives are worth to Him. Apparently, they’re worth quite a lot. It is during this season of Lent, that we reflect upon what is worth dying for and what cross are we willing to bear? And, what is God offering us that makes life worth the living?
And this is where we find ourselves on this first Sunday of Lent. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he is attempting to explain to the believers how sin came into the world and how the stain of that sin was removed from our lives. In considering Paul’s intended audience you have to understand that it was made up of mostly Jewish converts with a growing number of Gentile believers, so he has the challenge of addressing people coming from two different backgrounds. One group with deep Jewish roots and the other who believed in a God and wanted to know more about the one true God.
So, he starts out by explaining that sin came into the world through one man, and death came through that sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. The Jewish believers would have understood this because of their knowledge of Adam and Eve and their original sin against God. But the Gentile converts had to wonder how they could be declared guilty of something someone else did thousands of years earlier. A very good point. Paul is confirming our solidarity with Adam by our own sins every day. He wanted the Gentile believers to understand that we are all made of the same stuff and are just as prone to rebel as Adam did, and we are, therefore, judged for the sins we commit. Because we are sinners, he wants us to understand it isn’t fairness we need, it’s mercy.
Paul says; sure, sin was in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. He’s talking about that time between Adam and when God gave the Law to Moses as a guide to us by which to live. The law was added well after Adam to help people see their sinfulness, to show them the seriousness of their offenses, and to drive them to God for mercy and pardon. The law points out our sin and places the responsibility for it squarely on our shoulders. But the law offers no remedy, only punishment. Jesus is the remedy.
Paul tells us that this free gift Jesus offers us is not like the trespass of the one man, Adam, that led to the death of many. It was the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, that abounded for the many. He explains that the judgment that followed the one trespass brought condemnation, but that free gift following many trespasses brings justification. This one man’s act of righteousness led to justification and a true life for all. Justification is something we Methodists understand. Our Book of Discipline, in paragraph 102, says; In justification we are, through faith, forgiven our sin and restored to God’s favor. This righting of relationships by God through Christ calls forth our faith and trust as we experience regeneration, by which we are made new creatures in Christ. Paul is telling us that, if because of Adam’s trespass, death exercised dominion over us, how much more surely will those of us who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, will exercise dominion in our life through Jesus Christ? Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the atonement, we can trade our sin for Jesus’ righteousness. It’s just that easy. It’s there for the asking. It’s free.
Amy says that the Passion narrative should also prompt us to think about reconciliation in our own lives. Just like the annual Jewish observance of The Day of Atonement, we should take time during the Lenten season to meditate upon reconciling those sins of commission and omission that have been on our minds all year. She says that, during Lent, we should ask ourselves, what should I have done that I did not do? What risks should I have taken that I was afraid to take? When did my sense of self-preservation trump my sense of courage? It means asking; what should I have done, even if it might have been detrimental to me? It means asking; what did I do that I should not have done, and how might I correct the results? Saying “sorry” is not enough. We must move from regret and remorse to correction and action.
Entering into Lent is the time when we ask those questions, and we then take the next step and answer them. As you meditate on what Jesus gave up for you and the great gift of mercy and a new relationship with God the Father, think about what it is that is standing between you and that “at one-ment” with God.