Lectionary blog for June 18
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100;
Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Sinners. People who sin. Paul says that’s us. The Seven Deadly Sins—greed, anger, lust, pride, envy, gluttony and sloth—are the building blocks of the basic human condition, according to Romans. They are also, “a great underused marketing tool,” at least according to an article in the magazine Advertising Age (Dean Loftis, Advertising Age, April 26, 2012).

On a recent family vacation in Seattle, I saw this idea in practice. Not far from Pike Place Market I spotted a sign hanging over the street. In mock medieval script the large print read “The Confectional” with a golden halo around the capital “C.” Underneath was printed a faux quote: “Forgive me chocolate for I have sinned. I have not had my daily confection.”

Most people don’t take the idea of being sinners who sin very seriously anymore. We talk about words and actions being inappropriate or unfortunate or inadvisable. We don’t call them sins. We don’t see them as upsetting or shattering the divine/human relationship. Instead, we think of them as failures of socialization or education. People do not need repentance and forgiveness as much as they require life coaching and awareness-raising sessions.

The authors of the Bible in general, and St. Paul in particular, paint a far different picture. For them, “sin” is serious business. It is what separates us not only from the holiness of God, but also tears us away from our own true selves and keeps us separated from each other. In the Scriptures, sin is serious business, a severe malady, requiring an equally serious and powerful remedy.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The Greek word translated “sinners” is rooted in the concept of “missing the mark,” as in archery—shooting an arrow and not only failing to get a bull’s eye but also missing the entire target. What’s the expression, “Couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn?” That’s us, that’s sinners. While striving to please God, we keep stumbling over what Advertising Age calls our “fundamental drives and desires.” Greed bumps our elbow; lust gets in our eye; anger ups our adrenaline and makes us hyper; pride makes us swell up and we forget to breathe—you get the picture. We aim the arrow of our lives at being good, but we get in our own way and “miss the mark.”

What are we to do? How can we get out of our own way? What must we do to tamp down all those elemental urges and emotions so that we can more easily serve God and love our neighbors? Well, the very frightening and disappointing answer is that there really isn’t anything we can do. It is a basic part of the human condition to be this way. According to Paul, some of us are less bad than others, but none of us is really good enough for God. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Well, if we can’t do anything, what is our way out? How do we stop being bad and start being good? How do we bridge the gap between God and us? How do we span the gulf that separates us not only from our enemies but also from our friends?

We don’t—but God in Christ does. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

There are a lot of great theological words in this fifth chapter of Romans: faith, peace, grace, hope, righteous, love. Perhaps the most important word and the least understood is in the first sentence. “Therefore, since we are justified …” (Romans 5:1).

Sin is real. Sin is serious. Sin is deadly. Sin is not something we can fix on our own, through our own efforts, by sheer force of will and determination.

Over the years, I’ve had two great, non-theological insights into the religious possibilities of the word “justify.” One came in conversation with my late mother-in-law who spent 44 years working for the same bank in eastern North Carolina. As a young seminarian, I asked her to help me balance my checkbook. While showing me what to do, she kept talking about “justifying the numbers.” I’m not a math person, nor had I ever studied any business or accounting, so this intrigued me. The theological insight I had was this: You don’t just look at your checkbook and then at the bank statement and say, “Look’s good to me.” No! You have to work at it, adjust the numbers, add and subtract, make it come out even or find out the reason why. In the same way, God doesn’t look at our sinful lives and then at the sacrifice Christ made on the cross and say, “OK, looks good to me.” No. God works on us to make us even, to make us righteous, to make us justified. To be justified is not only to be forgiven but also to be changed.

The other insight came at about the same time. I had always been interested in newspapers and journalism, and an old high school friend of mine was working in the sports department of my hometown newspaper. I dropped in to see him one day when I was in town, and he gave me a tour of the little plant, including the typesetting area. He showed me how they adjusted the size of the type and the spacing of the letters and words to make the right side of the columns come out even. When he said this was called “justifying the type,” another little lightbulb went off. The printers don’t just look at the uneven and jagged right side of the page and say, “OK, looks even to me.” No! They work at it, adjust it, move things around to make it even. They justify it. Just so, God works on us, moves, nudges, changes, adjusts us to make us holy and righteous. God justifies us.

Sin is real. Sin is serious. Sin is deadly. Sin is not something we can fix on our own, through our own efforts, by sheer force of will and determination. It continually throws us off, trips us up, causes us to miss the mark. But there is good news—“while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The love of God in Christ is equally real, equally serious, and equally deadly for the evil that lurks within us.

So, though Advertising Age is right that the Seven Deadly Sins are representative of our “fundamental drives and desires,” they do not, in the end, define our humanity or determine our destiny. The love of God in Christ does that.

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2).

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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