A sermon on Romans 5:12-21 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 6 November 2022
Part of growing up is learning that our actions and choices have consequences either for good or for bad, for ourselves and for others. If I go over the speed limit, I can be caught and forced to pay a fine. If I do it too much, I can lose my license. If I knuckle down and study hard, I can do well in my exams and get the job of my dreams.
Unfortunately, experience teaches us that things can go bad rather quickly. One poor decision, one rash act in the heat of the moment, can lead to serious injury or a criminal conviction. In under a minute a man can lose a hand or a leg or an eye. He can lose his job or his family or his life, and from that moment events can spiral out of control, causing untold harm not just to himself but to many others as well. Disaster can strike in a moment.
Great good, however, can take years to develop.
Scientific myth states that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident in 1928. What the myth doesn’t say is that Fleming served as an army doctor during World War I and saw many soldiers get worse rather than better after their wounds were treated with antiseptics. After the war he looked for something better. The myth also doesn’t say that Fleming was often deliberately careless with his experiments with bacteria because he was interested in what could happen not in what should happen under controlled conditions. His two great lifetime discoveries both happened because his experiments were contaminated. But that doesn’t mean that they happened by accident.
When Fleming came back from holiday and found that his bacterial culture had been contaminated by a mould from a lab downstairs in the same building he also found that where the mould grew the bacteria had died. It was no surprise when a colleague identified the mould as Penicilium which was already known to have germ killing qualities. Poultices of mouldy bread had already been used for decades to treat infections. Fleming knew what he had discovered and called the germ killing chemical produced by the mould penicillin.
During the 1930s penicillin was so hard to mass produce that the scientific community lost interest. Australian born doctor Howard Florey revived that interest in 1941 when he conducted the first clinical trial of penicillin on a human patient. Florey used all the penicillin he had, all there was in the world at that time, on a single dose on a man dying of septicaemia. The man improved over the next 24 hours only to worsen and die when he could not be given another dose. It showed that penicillin but only many doses of it could have saved him. The American government was so impressed by the result of the trial that it poured money into finding a way to mass produce penicillin and it was successfully used to treat soldiers wounds during World War II. The Allies had 10 to 12% less casualties than the Germans because of the new wonder drug.
Since those days, although some people are allergic to it, penicillin has saved the lives of many millions of people. In an opinion poll in Scotland in 2009, Alexander Fleming was voted the third greatest Scot behind Robert Burns and William Wallace. Former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies once said,
In terms of world well-being, Howard Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia. And he used to be on the Fifty dollar note. Fleming and Florey were awarded the Nobel prize for Medicine in 1945.
Our actions and choices have consequences. One mistake can bring misfortune in a moment to thousands of people. Good takes longer to achieve and often requires effort and determination. It can take years and years and doesn’t happen by accident. But that good can undo a thousand mistakes and benefit millions. The world has changed forever because of the mass production and use of antibiotics.
In Romans chapter 5, verses 12 to 21, the apostle Paul teaches us that the choices and actions of two people, Adam and Jesus, had far reaching consequences with three important differences. Adam’s one act of disobedience led to the misery of all his descendants. But Jesus’ lifetime of obedience brings blessing that is more than a match for all that misery. It is the antibiotic for sin. As Paul said in verse 20,
Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.
Three important differences.
The first difference is Adam’s one act of disobedience against Jesus’ lifetime of obedience. In this passage, Paul talks about Adam’s sin. His trespass. His disobedience.
To sin is to do wrong. When we sin, we do harm rather than help.
To trespass is to cross a natural boundary, to transgress into something forbidden, to go somewhere or to do something that you’re not supposed to.
To disobey is to break a law. It is to act in a way contrary to what is commanded. Adam disobeyed when God clearly told him,
You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.
And he did what he was told not to do.
Adam trespassed when he overturned the natural order of things and ignored his creator and listened instead to the snake.
You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
Adam sinned when he doubted God and his word and believed the lies of the devil.
By contrast Paul talks about Jesus’ grace, his act of righteousness, his life of obedience.
Grace is undeserved kindness. When we experience grace we enjoy the good things that we do not deserve.
Obedience is acting according to a clear instruction. When we obey a law we follow it. We do what we are told to do.
Righteousness is conduct that is just and fair. Righteousness does what it is told not just because it has been told to do it, but because what it has been told to do is good right.
In Jesus’ birth and life and death, in his words and in his teaching, in his choices and in his attitudes, we see his grace. His undeserved kindness. He gave himself to the crowds and he healed their diseases and met their needs. He ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors. He forgave his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same.
Jesus obeyed his Father God and trusted him. He depended on him. And when given the choice between what he himself wanted and what his Father wanted, Jesus did what his Father wanted at the risk of his own life. He didn’t just obey an arbitrary law. But he did what was right, what was good and fair to others.
Now when we look at what both Adam and Jesus did we could focus on one action. One choice, each made in a different garden. In the Garden of Eden, Adam believed the snake. He took the fruit. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus obeyed his Father. He surrendered to the soldiers and died on the cross the next day.
But although you can ruin your life in a moment with one careless action, it usually takes a lifetime to lead up to one act of good. Jesus’ whole life shows a series of consistent decisions towards the same goal. He was sent by the Father and led by the Spirit and made his own choices freely and gladly.
The second difference between Adam and Jesus lies in the consequences of their actions. Adam’s disobedience led to misery for all his descendants. Jesus’ life of obedience leads to blessing for all who believe.
Adam’s sin led to immediate consequences, including shame and blame. When he ate the fruit and realised that he was naked, he and Eve made clothes out of leaves. When they heard God walking in the Garden, they tried to hide. When God confronted them with their actions, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. “The devil made me do it” was the first excuse and has been the most popular since.
But that wasn’t the end. They were banished from the Garden of Eden and sent to toil for their food. Cut off from the tree of life, they died. And their children were born in this life of exile. And their children. And their children. And so on until now. In Romans chapter 5 Paul talks about sin entering the world. Like it’s more than just an action, a choice we make, but a force for evil within us and around us. Paul talks about death passing through to each person and reigning, ruling like a warlord, an irresistible power in control of our lives. Paul talks about judgment and condemnation as God shines the light of his law of love, exposing human deeds that do harm and bring death.
This is our misery. We want to be the captain of our own soul, free to chart our own course through life. But our life’s ship sails through dangerous currents of popular opinions and acceptable behaviour and fashions of philosophy and of ethics. And there are dangerous currents at work inside us, clouding our judgment, creating conflicts between what we want and what is good for us and what is best for all.
Some of our misery is the consequence of other people’s choices. Where we were born. How we were raised. What was done to us. Sadly, some of the misery that other’s experience is a consequence of our choices. And we do unto others not what we want them to do to us, but what others have done to us. The old saying goes that misery loves company. And so we share the misery that others have done to us with others.
It’s not a germ that we can eradicate with antibiotics. It’s not in our DNA that we can remove with good breeding. It’s not a hole that we can fill with education. It’s something that has unfortunately become part of what it means to be human. As the old saying goes, to err is human. Or as the old excuse goes, I’m only human.
Paul calls the blessing that Jesus brings a gift. Freely given by God through the death and resurrection of his Son. In contrast to the condemnation that lies at the heart of our misery, God’s gift is justification. In small ways we try to justify our own existence, but it is God who ultimately justifies us, giving meaning to our life by putting us in the right with him.
Paul calls that gift righteousness. Not a righteousness achieved by our own independent effort. But a righteousness that begins with God and only grows slowly in our lives. This gift of righteousness brings us life. As sinners, living in our misery, we only exist. But through Jesus Christ we begin to live for the first time in our lives in harmony with the purpose of our creation. It is eternal life, beginning now with no end in sight as it is caught up into the eternal glory of God.
Ultimately, what Jesus offers us is a new kind of humanity. One that is not ruled by selfishness and violence and cruelty, bringing us shame and guilt and death. But a new life like Jesus’ life. Led by the Spirit of God in obedience to the will of our heavenly Father, walking in the example of Jesus. It is not just a second helping of life after our death, but a new and different kind of life now and always.
The third difference is that Adam committed one sin, but that the blessing of Jesus triumphs over many sins. And so we could pull out the newspaper and focus on the misery of the human condition. But Romans chapter 5 focuses instead on the triumph of Jesus. Take verse 16 for example.
The gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.
The blessing of Jesus that is the gift of God is not like the misery that is the result of Adam’s sin. It’s similar, yes, but with crucial differences. The most important difference being that God’s gift of righteousness to us followed many trespasses and still managed to bring justification to undo all those trespasses. Our sin puts us in the wrong. And one sin piles on another. But Jesus puts us in the right that a lifetime of sins cannot undo. For the simple reason that there is more grace in Jesus than there is sin in the world.
You can read the Bible from cover to cover and you won’t find many superheroes of faith. What you will find is men and women who made mistakes and lived with the consequences. God’s people grumbled and stumbled. They were hurt and they hurt each other. They got sick of waiting for God’s promises and with the best of intentions took matters into their own hands and only managed to make things worse.
But that is only half the story of the Bible. The full story is that
where sin increased, grace increased all the more.
God was patient with his impatient, miserable people. And into that history of sin and misery came the one perfect of life of Jesus Christ. Of all human beings, the most human. The first truly human being. And by his whole lifetime of obedience coming to a climax into his decision to give his life for us he has brought a blessing that outcompetes all our misery.
What it means is that my life is not defined by the flaws in my character or by the mistakes I make. But that my life is defined by the gift of life that I receive by faith, made possible by the obedience of the true man, Jesus. In this life it means that I have no excuse for shame or blame or fear or guilt but that I can have peace with God and peace with my neighbour and peace with myself. And in the next life it means that I can stand unashamed before the searching gaze of my creator because his purpose for me will not be frustrated by my mistakes but will be achieved by Jesus.
Peace in this life and salvation in the next.
Our choices and actions have consequences. Disaster can come in a moment. But great good can take years to bear fruit. But when it comes it can undo all the disasters. In the Garden of Eden Adam chose the fruit and brought misery to his descendants. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus chose the cross, Jesus chose us, Jesus chose you to undo all that misery. Enjoy the consequences of Jesus who chose you by choosing him. And find your true humanity in a life like his, led by the Spirit in obedience to our heavenly Father.