First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 1

William Loader

Lent 1: 1 March  Romans 5:12-19

Paul paints on a broad canvas. He has just celebrated reconciliation, grounded in love and the foundation of hope (5:1-11). This is the backbone of Paul's faith that helps him withstand hardship and opposition. Elsewhere people see Paul's frailty as a frailty of spirituality. Paul sees it differently. Frailty belongs to life in this world. This world view now receives further elaboration in a complicated, repetitive statement about Adam and Christ (5:12-21). It introduces us to two major processes which Paul sees at work in humanity.

The two processes head in opposite directions. One brings people into the state of sin, produces sins and leads to death in more than just a literal sense. The other produces life and goodness. Paul's intellectual world assumes that the human race began with Adam. Adam's sin or disobedience started a process. Paul speaks of this process in terms of rule or reign (5:13). It is as though he is speaking of an evil power. It is much more than sins and their multiplication. It is also something other than a physical or hereditary substance of some kind passed on by our bodies (and, at worst, based in our sexuality!). Paul is not thinking of that kind of automatic "original sin", but he is nevertheless speaking of a process which brought sin's negativity to all people.

Matching Adam's sin is Christ's goodness. Here Paul focuses in particular not on Christ as a life story, but as an event, somewhat in the abstract. He speaks of an act of grace or goodness. For Paul that usually means Christ's death, but this must not be seen in isolation from his life and ministry or from his resurrection. Just as something happened which started a process of decay and destruction through Adam's sin, so something creative and liberating happened in Christ which has begun a new process. In Paul's repetitive statements you can see the links between goodness/grace and its fruits in people's lives. You can also see that he thinks of this positive process also in terms of rule or reign (5:21).

Some of his statements could easily be read as though the process is automatic, but that misreads Paul. Paul never forgets we are dealing with persons and relationships in which therefore personal response matters. This is true of the sin/death process - people also choose to sin just as people choose to respond to the good news.

Paul has Christ match Adam. Christ makes it possible to become free from the process which Adam inaugurated. Ultimately that will not reach fulfilment until we reach an entirely renewed creation; everything needs to be liberated in Paul's view not just individual human beings. But in the interim we don't need to be caught in the power system which produces sin and hate and death. We can live, instead, by the Spirit, which produces goodness, and love and hope. Paul will expand on this reality in the following chapters. It is also part of his answer to critics who complain that a message of love and forgiveness can too easily lead to moral apathy or even disregard of the needs and rights of others.

We do not assume humanity began with an Adam and an Eve. Our chronologies go way beyond the few thousand years which our Bible assumes. Yet the essential argument which Paul brings need not collapse with the mythology. Sin is much more than individual acts of sin. Negative, destructive influence is more than what confronts me in the individual choice between good and evil. Such influences are also systemic in groups, organisations and in families. We are very good at creating contexts which are destructive for people and we now understand very well how we pass on negativity and destructiveness from generation to generation. We also know that "saving" or healing means much more than forgiveness of individuals' sins. It is a process. It is the undoing of the destructive forces and influences which we inherit and which find their form in our structures and settings. Organisations can be destructive even though they are peopled with loving and caring individuals and supposedly exist for good. Churches and congregations can be prime examples.

Paul helps us be aware that sin in something big and sins are just the outworking of the malaise - which he can sometimes call death. Paul is therefore also making us aware that salvation is big. It is about getting things into right relationship ("righteousness", "justification'). This is not a one-off experience but a life long process which may be dotted with dramatic episodes or may be simply a steady surge of maturity towards love. It includes more than individuals. It is the source of our passion for ecumenism and ultimately for a world of peace and a creation cared for.

While our passage concludes with 5:19, we need to recognise that Paul has not finished there. He does not finish this section till 5:21 which is its best summary. 5:20 also allows us to see the other agenda which runs beneath the discussion and surfaced already in 5:13, so strongly it interrupted Paul's sentence in midstream. This is the matter of the Law. Many Jews would argue that Paul has replaced the Law with Christ in a way which raises serious questions about the Law (or depending on your point of view: about Paul's construction, which seems to have no place for the Law).

In 5:13 he notes that sin was an active force even before people had the Law to define its parameters. With that he at least countered the view that without the Law you could not even speak of sin. 5:20 is more difficult. Paul theorises: the Law came in to enhance sin. This sounds outrageous and turns normal wisdom on its head. It sounds blasphemous. Yet Paul is arguing that the Law functioned in a way that actually exposed sin and drove people into a corner where they sinned all the more and fell into greater guilt. In Romans 7 he protects his view from the allegation that he is saying the Law is bad. There he lays the blame on what people do with the Law. Here he signals that the effect of the Law on such people was negative (even though the Law was good in itself).

Paul's point is that the Law was powerless to bring the kind of change which was needed. Only the gift of love and grace could do that. It could outrun the "gift" of sin and death (5:20). While Paul's statements about the Law here are all too brief and appear to pose alternatives which may be too sharply drawn (is not the Law, the Torah, also a gift of grace?), the focus on grace and love rather than law and rule as the basis for human transformation takes us to the heart of the good news and of hope for humanity.

Gospel: Lent 1: 1 March Matthew 4:1-11

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