Consider Yourselves… (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

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One of the great blessings in my life is that I’ve got a number of really good friends. In fact, I have a couple sets of friends who are really more than friends – they’re like family. Although we’re not related by blood or marriage or adoption, we all consider ourselves to be, essentially, family. And, really, one of the great things about friends like that is that they’re family you get to choose, and who choose you to be part of their families!

Probably many of you have those kinds of friendships as well. And when you have really good friends who consider you to be part of their family, and whom you consider to be part of yours, it’s not:

  • a figure of speech – it’s not just something you say to be polite – it really means that you have a deep and significant relationship with these friends…
  • wishful thinking – gosh, I wish these people were my family because I get along with them better than some of the people I’m actually related to…!
  • denial of reality – where you pretend that you really are related by blood or marriage or adoption …

Instead, you consider yourself part of the family, because in a very real sense, you are. And the reality of that relationship is, in fact, greater and more significant than anything else, even blood, marriage or adoption.

And that’s the kind of thing that Paul is talking about in today’s second reading, when he concludes by telling the early Christians in Rome, “you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” What did Paul mean by that? “Consider yourselves dead” and then again, “consider yourselves alive”.  Well, just as when we consider ourselves to be part of a family, it isn’t just a figure of speech; it’s not wishful thinking; and it’s not a denial of reality.

Instead, Paul is speaking of a new relationship that God has given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a new relationship that’s just as real than the other realities in our lives. And it’s a new relationship so significant that it’s more important than anything else, even “sin”.

And actually, when Paul says that we should “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”, he’s answering the question that begins today’s reading: “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” And it’s important to realize that in this whole passage, Paul speaks, as he usually does, of “sin” in the singular. Sin is a condition. It’s an attitude. It’s an alienated state in which you’re separated from God and from God’s loving purpose for your life.

So, you’ll notice that Paul doesn’t ask, “should we continue TO sin”, but rather, “should we continue IN sin.” Paul understands “sin” not merely as bad things we sometimes do, but rather as the underlying condition of our lives that sometimes manifests itself in bad actions. So for Paul, “sin” is:

  • a focus on ourselves instead of upon God or our neighbors … later, St. Augustine picked up on this and defined sin as being “turned in on oneself”…
  • an attitude of entitlement rather than thankfulness … in his letters, Paul frequently notes that the inability of people to receive God’s gifts is not their lack of worthiness, but their inability to see themselves as recipients and to give thanks …
  • being cut off and separated from God … this is the basic OT understanding of sin, and because God is the giver of all life, being separated from God is to be, in one sense, dead …

And because “sin” in this sense, is such a powerful force, Paul also realized that in this life, we can never get beyond the power of sin. Human beings, even when we know better, will always wonder, “what’s in it for me.” Human beings, even when we know better, will always be tempted to think that we’re entitled to so much more than we have. And human beings, even when we know better, will always wonder how much better we could run our lives if we ran the universe instead of God.

Yet, the miracle, as Paul wrote in last week’s reading from Romans, is that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Even when we’re captive to sin, even when we don’t realize it, and even when we’re enjoying our alienation from God, God still loves us!

So, many people might have wondered, since sin is so powerful, and since God loves us even when we’re deep into sin, why not just go with the flow and “continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”

Well, says Paul, the reason you shouldn’t give up like that is not because God won’t love you or forgive you if you mess up. Rather, the reason is that in Jesus, God has done a new thing. The power of sin – that power of alienation and death – has actually already been conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. God has created a new reality for us – and it’s a new reality that’s even more important and significant than the “sin” that we find ourselves so often caught up in.

This new reality that God gives us in Jesus is that we actually get to share in Jesus’ death and resurrection right now. And because of that new reality, we should “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” It’s not just a figure of speech; it’s not wishful thinking; and it’s not a denial of the reality of the power of sin.

Instead, just as when your friends tell you to consider yourself part of their family, Paul means that God has actually created a new reality for us in Jesus. That new reality really makes us part of God’s family. God’s new reality in Jesus:

  • really does include us – even when we mess up and even when we think we might not be worthy enough;
  • gives us the promise of new life – right now, not just after we die…
  • empowers us to live already in new ways – knowing that our failures and weaknesses finally don’t count as much as God’s promise of forgiveness and new life… (thus, Martin Luther’s comment about “sinning boldly”!)

You know, when your friends tell you that you’re really part of the family, all that they really want from you is to accept that reality and to live as part of their family.  You can’t do that fully if you keep wondering if they really mean it, or if you keep telling yourself that you’re not “really” part of the family.

Paul reminds us in today’s reading that this is the kind of relationship God wants with us as well. What God really wants is for us to receive the new life that he offers us in Jesus. What God really wants is for us to “consider ourselves” part of his family. And what God really wants is for us to have such a sense of his love and new life as the central reality in our lives that we can, each day, live differently because we really do “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”