This sermon was given at our evensong service on Sunday 18th March. The New Testament reading was Romans 5:12-21 During the week leading up to the service, both Ken Dodd and Stephen Hawking passed away.
Whenever I prepare to preach a sermon, I look at the readings, and first of all try to find something that strikes me as odd or unusual to preach on. Sometimes, I’ll find that when I’m looking at the readings, that there’s one which is hard to understand, or I need to read several times and do quite a bit of research on to really get what is being said. When that happens, I know that that is what I should be preaching on – if I find it hard to understand, then others might too, and spending my sermon unpacking that difficult reading could be really helpful to at least some of the people who are listening (I hope!).
And so, you can imagine how thrilled I was – the sheer joy of the inner voice in my head when I saw that today’s New Testament reading was from Romans – considered by many people to be one of the hardest books in the Bible to understand. Not only was it a reading from Romans, it was – I found (with increasing… um… ‘joy’ in my mind) – a particularly difficult passage from this particularly difficult book. I’ve seen some commentators call this reading the most difficult passage to understand in the book of Romans. The most difficult passage from the most difficult book. Joy. Joy indeed.
Perhaps, then, you’ll give me a pass this once? Maybe I could preach on something else instead? I’ve mentioned ‘joy’… what about a sermon on that childhood favourite hymn, ‘Give me joy in my heart’? It’d be a good deal easier to deliver than one on Romans 5…
I’ve read through more than a few sermons on this passage in an attempt to garner some inspiration. All they’ve shown me, however, is that preachers the world over find this a thorny piece. They tie themselves up in knots with explanations that confuse my eyes and my brain, getting lost in long, complicated sentences, full of attempted exegesis and odd parallels – much like Paul does in our text, to be honest… in fact, right at the very beginning of our reading this evening, Paul breaks off his chain of thought, and goes into a lengthy exposition about sin, law, death and grace, only coming back to his original thinking 6 and a half verses – and most of our reading – later.
One of our modern problems with this text, I think, is that we know much more about Christ than we do about Adam. (and if you think about it, that’s not a bad problem to have, really, is it?!) Many of the sermons I’ve read spend much of their time attempting to explain what Paul says about Adam in this text by contrasting him to Christ, and they get themselves caught up in knots and lose the plot. BUT, that’s not what Paul was doing. Paul wasn’t explaining anything about Adam in this passage… Paul was trying to tell us something about Christ.
So… let’s see what that might be! In order to do that, I’m going to have to state some ‘givens’ – some things that Paul believed his audience just knew or already believed. I’m going to try to not explain them too much, as that is – from what I’ve read – the trap to avoid.
Here we go: Paul states that sin entered the world because of the actions of Adam. He says that, because Adam sinned, we all sinned – the concept being (if we update it slightly so we understand it a bit better), that our DNA, our life-force was in Adam at the time. Paul says we were literally there with him; just not yet born. And he also says that when sin entered the world, death came with it. Paul is reminding his listeners of something they already know and already believe – Adam’s actions affected all of us. His one act impacts us all. That’s the background-knowledge… you’re up to speed!
Now comes the compare-and-contrast!
Adam’s action brought sin and death into the world; for us all, not just for him or for a select few. Christ, though, through his death on the cross, brings grace and life. For us all – not just for him or a select few. Paul has built his argument here; he’s made it solid. “How can Christ’s death do that?”, his readers ask, “One person’s action cannot affect us all, can it?”
“You already know it can!”, says Paul. “Look at Adam! Look at what happened when he chose to rebel; sin and death came into the world, and you know those affect us all! Look around you! Death reigns; it can neither be stopped by the finest scientific mind on the planet, nor made to turn back by the loudest and longest laughter across Liverpool and the North West. We are all affected by the action of Adam. You all know it; you cannot deny it. All your senses tell you it is so.”
And Paul rests his case. But, what a premise… for if Adam’s action can affect us all, then so can another’s. If we can all be condemned in Adam, we can all be justified in Christ. Death may still reign, may still be clinging by its fingernails to the throne, but it is now a pretender. Life has come. And so, Paul says, in verses 18 and 19, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
And that – I think – is what Paul is saying in this most difficult of passages; Adam affected us all, and that case in point shows that Christ had the power to do so too. And he did. The actions of one person can affect every single one of us. Adam affected us all. Christ affected us all… but – and here’s my point – it’s Not Just Them. Professor Stephen Hawking affected us all – his theories and scientific advances have been a direction-set for humanity, and will be for many years to come. Sir Ken Dodd affected us all – his joie de vivre, his irrepressible comedic style, and his lasting influence in the world of entertainment have affected us all. Both men will be missed – and remembered – for many, many years. In our passage this evening, Paul takes pains to point out one person’s actions can affect us all. Adam, Christ, Ken, Stephen… what about you? Your actions could. Your actions should. To bring me back to my original idea at the start of my sermon tonight, imagine the joy in that.