I was reading Romans the other day because I’m reading a book by NT Wright called “Paul: A Biography” and since the Apostle Paul is the brain behind Romans, I found myself sitting on some verses before heading off to work. I’ve read Romans a few times and, admittingly, don’t understand very much of it.
It reads like a gigantic run-on sentence.
Some of those sentences aren’t even coherent thoughts.
It’s next to impossible to understand it in it’s entirety.
… But in some weird way, I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Like, I think if we come away from the book of Romans thinking we understand every bit of it then we need to go back and read it again because I’m not 100% sure it’s meant to be completely understood. Nor am I 100% it CAN be completely understood.
As a matter of fact, Paul didn’t even write the book.
Rather, it was written by Tertius (Romans 16:22 — “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord”) who was most likely frantically writing down as Paul was dictating. And so I imagine Paul on a rooftop somewhere or int he back of a pub pacing back and forth and back and forth and back and forth as he told Tertius what to write down …
“Say it like this.”
“No, scratch that out. Say this instead.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Maybe this is better?”
“What in the world am I even talking about right now?!”
Tertius was likely writing like a madman trying to keep up with the steady string of thoughts that were leaving Paul’s mouth and so rather than Romans reading like a finely edited document that Paul typed up on his MacBook at Starbucks before emailing to his editor, it reads like a grammatical nightmare.
In his book, “Did God Kill Jesus?” Tony Jones points out that …
“Paul’s letter to the Romans is unique in that it’s the only time he wrote to a church that he hadn’t yet visited — all of his other church correspondence is to churches that he launched himself. His purpose in writing is to introduce himself and establish his theology.”
I think that’s interesting because all of Paul’s other letters …
To the church in Thessalonica.
To the church in Ephesus.
To the church in Corinth.
… They all addressed a certain issue that was going on in that church. In some cases the people were arguing amongst themselves while other times people were trying to make themselves holy and acceptable in God’s eyes by obeying the Law.
Romans is different though because rather than writing to address an issue, he’s just writing to introduce himself and share a bit in writing of what he hopes to share in word and deed when he arrives.
That said, one of the things I’ve picked up on the few times I’ve read Romans is the many times that Paul mentions the word “sin”. I did a quick Google search and depending on the translation you’re reading, you’ll find that the word appears roughly 35 times over the course of 16 chapters, which is about 2 times per chapter.
One of those times is in Romans 3:23, what many would assume is the crux of Paul’s entire point in writing the book, his opening and main argument …
“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
All have sinned.
Fallen short of the glory of God.
As church people we typically read that verse and assume that Paul is telling us that …
Everyone is a sinner.
Everyone is stained with the sin of Adam.
Everyone is far from who God wants them to be.
Everyone disappoints God in some way.
Everyone has a sin they struggle with, a thron or sorts.
Everyone has missed the mark.
Everyone is marked with a sinful nature.
Everyone needs Jesus to make them clean.
Everyone needs Jesus to help make up the distance between them and God.
All of those things might be true,
I think we need to be careful with how we read and understand words like this, especially words that are used so frequently in a complicated book like Romans, words that we quickly read and assume we understand.
Did Paul and his original hearers understand sin in the way that you and I do? In the way that many of us have been taught to understand sin?
What if they didn’t? Like, what if they understood it differently? Would that change it’s meaning? Maybe even make it more meaningful?
Sometimes we treat sin like a giant bucket that contains things that are off limits. In that bucket would be things like cursing, getting drunk, pre-marital sex, gambling, abortion, etc. Some people would put different things in their buckets than others, but most of us would have a core set of sins that we could agree should be in there.
… Those kinds of things. Nobody needs that in their lives and so we call that stuff “sin”.
I remember at a Good Friday service a few years back the pastor invited us to write our biggest sin struggle on a note card, fold it up, and nail it to a giant cross in the front of a room as a symbolic way of nailing our sin to the cross with Jesus, the One who bore our sins and sacrificed Himself for them.
When Paul begins dropping his big ideas in 1:18, though, sin isn’t the first thing he mentioned. The first thing he mentions, rather, is “idolatry” (sometimes translated “ungodliness”). This is important because for Paul, idolatry is the primary thing that goes wrong — people worship idols in addition to (or instead of) worshipping God and then people’s calling to be God’s image bearers in the world starts to crack and fragment and get all distorted and ugly.
Because being God to the people around us, that’s our calling in this life. All the way back in the early pages of the Old Testament God told Abraham that he’d be the father of many nations and that his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing to others.
That was HIS calling.
That was THEIR calling.
And it’s OURS, as well.
SIN, then, isn’t so much a bucket of actions and thoughts that we should avoid as it is a descriptor of stuff that happens when you stop being genuinely human, when you stop being the person God created you to be, when you stop being a blessing to the people around you.
And the reason you stop being genuinely human, the person God created you to be, a blessing to people around you is because you’re not solely worshipping the God in whose image you’re made.
In other words, if you’re secretly worshipping …
… Then the sort of human you’re going to be INSTEAD of being someone who brings God’s love and grace and justice into the world is one who will bring bits of those things, yes, but bits that are colored with or stained with the distractions that you’re introducing into your own life.
And so sin is a much more complicated thing than a list of do’s and don’ts that we’ve all broken or a bucket of things we should stay away from, but struggle to avoid.
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
The glory of God is supposed to shine brightly in you and me — to shine in us in such a way that we bless others in the way that we’ve been blessed. Like Jesus said, we’re to love and forgive and turn the other cheek. We’re to carry loads a second mile, love our enemies, and welcome the prodigals home. We’re to go to the margins, love the unlovable, and welcome back those who have been turned away. We’re to heal the sick, feed the poor, and fight injustices in the world.
This is our birthright.
This is our calling.
This is who we are.
We sin, however, not simply when we take things out of the sin bucket that we shouldn’t, but moreso when we deliberately dedicate our lives and our days and our time and our energies and our thoughts to things that distract us or take us away from our calling to be God to the people around us.
We all do this, says Paul.
We’ve all sinned.
We’ve all dedicated ourselves to things that are less than God’s best.
We’ve all let distractions in.
We’ve all fallen short in this way.
And, therefore, we’ve all had a hand in the sinful condition that is so prevalent in our world. If God’s glory is for love and grace and mercy and inclusion to fill the world, then I think that Paul would say that we’ve all had a hand in letting distractions into our lives that keep us from being that glory and (instead) cause us to be vessels of hate and bitterness and exclusion and …
You fill in the blank.
Let’s repent today. Repent means to “change ones mind” and so it’s important for us to change our minds today, to change our minds about what we’re giving our attention and worship to, to change our focus from whatever is distracting us from being the blessing to the world we were created to be.