Sermon for Pentecost 3 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Because of my vocation, my father likes to send me gifts of an ironical religious nature from time to time, usually gifts that make some sort of joke about reformed theology to push my Anglo-Catholic buttons. Just last week I received this bag of Calvinist coffee beans, which claims to be “the coffee that chooses you” – a riff on the doctrine of predestination. This happens to be the “Total Depravity Blend” – a reference to the first point of classical Calvinism – because, of course, “men prefer the dark roast.” I brought it to the pulpit, not just for show-and-tell, but because it’s whole bean and, in the process of simplifying my life a couple years ago I got rid of my coffee grinder and don’t want a new one- so, I’m going to have a little competition- whoever can name which of Anglicanism’s 39 Articles of religion spells out our historical view of Original Sin and depravity will receive this pound of coffee with my compliments. You can just look in the back of the prayerbook for the answer, preferably after church rather than right now.

Anyway, my dad once gave me a similar gift he had found online which I think was a bit more clever than the coffee. it looked like a driver’s license, but it had Martin Luther’s picture on it, and promised license to “sin boldly.” I think I was in college at the time, so it makes the fact that my dad gave this to me as a gift all the more inscrutable.

In a letter to his partner in the cause of Reformation, Phillip Melancthon, Martin Luther wrote the following:

“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly.”

Do we, then, have a license to sin boldly, knowing that we have freedom in Christ, that we have been and will be forgiven? I don’t think so, but why not? There’s a word that we don’t use too much anymore, sadly, related to license- licentiousness. It’s a word Paul uses on a couple of occasions, and it just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it. It means acting as if one has license (that is- permission) to sin. It may seem odd to us, but whether or not we had such license was really a serious theological problem in the Early Church and beyond. It may be even today. If one’s view of salvation lets one do whatever one wants to do so long as one shows contrition before dropping dead (and a lot of people have this view) then it seems that we do have a license to sin.

In this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul gives us the counterargument:

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever has died is freed from sin.

There’s a lot going on there, so let’s break it down. First, Paul poses the question which the Lutheran license seems to implicitly suggest. If God’s Grace is the greatest gift we have and that Grace is made manifest in the forgiveness of sin (both Original Sin and particular sins) then doesn’t more sinning mean God’s Grace becomes even more manifest? Think of it this way. A sin is like the dollar bill we slide into the celestial vending machine. We punch the button on the machine by praying for forgiveness and out comes a delicious, ice cold Coca-Cola of God’s Grace. Now this isn’t how Grace and forgiveness work, but a lot of us fall into the habit of thinking that it is and apparently the Romans to whom Paul was writing thought so, too.

Paul corrects this misunderstanding by saying that we have died to sin in Baptism and thus ought to live the risen life of righteousness. Paul Calls this death to sin freedom. And here is the big distinction- the distinction between freedom and license. We are free from the grip of sin and from the law, but it does not mean we’ve been given license to do whatever we want. Rather we have the freedom to do what we ought, without a bunch of laws but with our conscience and the direction of the Holy Spirit working in us.

It does get a bit more complicated, though. A chapter later in Romans (in a lesson we’ll hear in a couple of weeks) Paul writes with regard to his own sins:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

This seems to contradict what Paul wrote in this morning’s Epistle, but I think it’s more a matter of complexity than contradiction. We are in a very real sense free from sin, but in another sense we are still bound by it. We are baptized people, cleansed from the stain of Original Sin, but we still live in a broken, fallen world and our human nature can easily fall back into the old patterns of pride and envy and wrath and all those other deadly sins. We are free to be wicked just as we are free to be righteous, and the former seems so often to be the path of least resistance.

Here, Luther might have actually been on to something. He didn’t stop his letter to Melancthon with “sin boldly,” but went on thus:

“Sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

I don’t think Luther was encouraging licentiousness, giving permission to sin, but rather was acknowledging that we can’t keep from sinning because we live in a sin-sick world. We can either be crippled by scrupulosity- the debilitating fear of messing up- or we can go through our lives boldly, knowing that we’ll slip up, but also trusting that the love of God in Christ Jesus will save us from ourselves and bring us to that place where righteousness and justice are easier than wickedness and rebellion. We do not do what we want to do, but that doesn’t mean we can either give up trying or lock ourselves up lest temptation find us. We may continue to sin, but we also have the freedom to love, and if we’re afraid to act we’ll miss the opportunity to be vessels of God’s love. So, don’t use your freedom to rage against God’s plan, but know that when you do you also have the freedom to repent, to believe, and to love God and each other with more vigor.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.