“Adam Done Right This Time”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, September 24, 2023
Reading: Romans 5:12-21
Renewal in the church usually comes from renewed attention to St. Paul. When God breathes new life into us, it’s because we rediscover Paul. His words about the grace of God in Jesus Christ healing all things. Renewal is what I long for for us, as a church, but not just for us, for our neighbourhood, our city. We Christians don’t just teach from the Bible so we would know more facts, and win trivia contests. We do so because we want to see our world transformed.
But we often shy away from Paul in liberal and mainline churches. I mentioned several reasons for this in my sermon last week: women and gay people and people of colour have felt the sting of exclusion from people quoting Paul. But here’s another reason we don’t hear from Paul. Christian doctrines that come from Paul are often out of fashion. For example, our teaching about original sin. It comes from our passage today. Once Adam and Eve disobey God, all the rest of us, every one of their children, are born in rebellion. No one can escape. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how bad, all of us are the same thing before God: sinners. I was preaching along this line here recently and one of you asked me after: are we really so bad as all that? No, not experientially. You’re lovely human beings. But theologically, before God, yes, we inherit a broken relationship with God, and it cannot be repaired from the human side. Now, that teaching is true. The problem is we Christians can fixate on sin, especially little moralistic behavioural sins, and give the impression that all we’re doing is frowning as the world misbehaves. I visited the town where I pastored for years recently, one of the older heads asked if I remembered what my first sermon there was about. Nope. No idea. “Sin,” he replied, looking happy about it. Sheesh. I really wish he’d said it was about Jesus.
Paul says, “One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all.” One single act of disobedience has catastrophic consequences for every subsequent generation for millennia, including eight billion of us on the planet now. Sort of a bummer note on an otherwise lovely Sunday morning. But let’s look again. We may find that Paul is much better than the teachings we’ve derived from him. This passage is where we get original sin, but there is so much more here.
In Romans Chapter Five Paul is comparing Adam to Jesus. Adam is the father of our disobedience, the one after whom all human beings are doomed from the womb and can’t help it. In the same way, Jesus Christ is the bringer of overwhelming grace. After him, all humanity is graced whether we know it or not. Jesus is Adam done right this time. A second and altogether better Adam. Everything that went wrong with the first Adam goes right with the final Adam. We Christians have often earned our reputation for being moralistic finger wagers: don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t cuss or drink or chew or go with girls who do, don’t, don’t, don’t, sort of a mean librarian in a bad mood. I wish we were known better for being fixated on grace. For standing in awe that when God’s first creature, Adam, failed, God sent another one, Jesus, to roll back up Adam’s failure and make all things new. I wish people said about us: ‘you know those people will forgive anything.’
There’s an actor and director I admire named Brit Marling. She starred in a series called The OA, and before that she did a movie called Another Earth. Her character has wasted her life. She’s driving drunk one night, falls asleep, hits another car, and kills everyone inside. Hard to imagine anything worse. You’d rather die than kill like that. Nothing she can ever do can fix it. But then the movie turns science fiction. Telescopes spot an object approaching Earth. Then the naked eye can see it. And the other object looks like … Earth. Another one. Same size. Same colours. A whole new world has appeared. And she starts to hope, wait, on this other Earth, is there another version of me? Without the blood on my hands? In the last scene of the film the two Earths are in communication and people are starting to visit back and forth and she sees herself. Is this other me possibly still good? Some sins would take a whole other world to repair.
That’s what original sin teaches. It’s actually a quite cheerful doctrine. There is a whole other world marked by grace not despair. All of us are equally sinners. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No matter who we are, how good we are or aren’t, how much money we have or don’t. All of us. Why do we teach that? Because of Genesis Three and the fruit and the snake? No. Our Jewish elder siblings have that story in Genesis as well and they don’t see it as a fall at all. We Christians teach original sin because we see it in Romans Five, this passage. It’s a reflection of Jesus Christ and the way he saves. It says, wow, for God to come in person in Jesus and save us: our sins must’ve been even worse than we realized. Christ’s grace is so vast that our trouble must’ve been worse than we knew.
Reinhold Niebuhr said original sin is our only objectively verifiable doctrine. Everyone experiences it. If you’ve been a parent of more than one child, you’ve seen we’re all sinners. As they fought over who has the larger cookie, who broke the vase. We adults would never do those things, would we? Every child, every person, is beautiful of course. And we’re each one of us more selfish than the last. God had work to do to save us. And God has done that work already in Jesus Christ.
But as soon as Paul compares Adam and Christ, he has to backtrack. Wait a minute, he says, Christ is like Adam, but so much greater. Adam might be first in time, but Christ is first in influence, impact. Uh, wait a minute Paul, you said Adam’s sin affected everyone who’s ever lived down to this day. Right. How is Christ’s grace greater than that? Don’t know, Paul says. (He often doesn’t know). Paul’s doing his best to fathom a mystery no one can imagine. But he does know this. Christ has to have more of an impact than Adam does. Or Adam would be greater than Christ. And that can’t be. Paul says this four different ways in three short verses.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass.
If the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God in the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.
16 And the gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the gift following many trespasses brings justification.
17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death reigned, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
As soon as Paul says Christ is Adam done right this time, he stops himself. Wait a minute. Let’s make this clear: Christ is greater than Adam. So much greater we can’t imagine. So, Paul makes the analogy: Christ is the second Adam, Adam corrected, perfected, made whole and whole making. Then he says, wait a minute, Christ is so much more than that. Yeah, sin is bad. No one escapes it. The world is dying because of it. But grace is so much bigger. So much greater. We can’t even imagine how much.
I met a retired pastor once and asked how his ministry had gone. It’d been decades. I was looking for a tip or two. Not well, he said. I only stayed a short time everywhere I served. Oh, why? He said they didn’t like my preaching of universalism. Ah, I see. Interesting, in some parts of the church we get super nervous if you don’t say someone’s in hell. Lots of someones. So, his churches. Haunted me for some reason. Finally realized why. How about not preaching something called “universalism.” Or any other ism. Just preach Jesus. And let people conclude what they may. If you do that from Paul you’ll start to wonder, gosh, Christ’s grace is so much greater than Adam’s predicament, can anyone escape the grace? If Adam’s fall taints us all, does Christ’s grace heal us all? Paul insists Christ’s work is greater, wider, more effective. Draw your own conclusions. If you want to teach hell you gotta leave Paul. Paul doesn’t have it. If you want hell you gotta go to Jesus. Which is surprising, we think of Jesus as nicer and Paul as meaner. Not so. The more time you spend in Paul the more you wonder, hmm, if Christ is that gracious, can anybody escape his mercy? Good luck with that.
We live in a graceless age. We talk more about sin than ever; we just don’t usually use the word. In an age of eco-catastrophe, fossil fuel use is indefensible. Even though we all depend on it. In an age of moral reckoning over race, colonialism is the unforgiveable sin, and being colonized makes you essentially good. In our cultural discourse there is no atoning for such sins. The backlash says, ‘hey I’m innocent, I didn’t do any of those things my ancestors did.’ The gospel says something else. All are sinners. We’re not just victims, we’re also victimizers. And we are responsible for sins our ancestor committed: Adam. But grace is greater still. So much greater than we can imagine. And if there’s anything that can heal our planet, heal our frayed social discourse, it’s grace alone.
I saw a documentary once on the descendants of Nazism’s architects. People with surnames like Goebbels. Himmler. Goering. They had mostly changed their names for obvious reasons. But several did more than that. Several sterilized themselves. One said simply, “I cut the line.” As if the evil was in their DNA and had to be eradicated (that’s a dangerous notion of evil, by the way—Christ can redeem anybody). Paul’s vision of salvation here is almost genealogical too, biological, but you can’t cut it off. Think of all the fairy tales where someone poor discovers they’re actually royalty. ‘I’m really a princess? No pretending?’ Paul is saying your family line is royal. Princely. Your last name is actually Christ. He’s your Adam. Your kinsman. Head of the family. And you’re in even if you’ve forgotten who you are.
We tend to think of salvation this way: Adam sins, Christ forgives, we believe and are saved. Right? That’s a major key in our symphony. But there are other keys. And this is one of them: Christ is Adam done over. This version doesn’t include a heavy emphasis on our guilt. Paul barely mentions us or our faith or lack thereof. Its emphasis is a newborn humanity, right in the middle of the old. If Adam affects everyone, Christ affects everyone more. Good luck staying out of his reach, his grasp of grace. One of the greatest poets in our language is John Dunne. He wrote of salvation this way. Remember the sweat on Adam’s brow is a punishment for our fall.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
We belong to the first Adam by virtue of being human. We belong to the second, well, by virtue of being human. Once God has become human, what human being is not affected by that?
One benefit of talking Paul’s way is that when we Christians talk about the fall, we often blame Eve, women. When we do this, we imitate the first Adam. He also blamed the woman: ‘well God this woman you gave me God gave me the fruit and I ate.’ Scapegoating women is born in sin. So is grievance, blame-shifting, feigning innocence. But in Romans Five it’s all pinned not on Eve, but on Adam. Gentlemen, the catastrophe is our doing. Also, in your bulletin and on screen is an icon I’ve shown you before. It’s of Mary and Eve. As Christ is Adam done right this time, so the church has wondered at Mary and called her Eve done right this time. Eve on the left is miserable, still clutching the fruit that made her misery, the serpent coiled around her leg. But Mary looks at her with nothing but tenderness. And guides Eve’s hand to Mary’s swelling womb. As if to say without your sin dear sister this grace could not have come. The church calls the fall a “happy fault,” felix culpa. Because it brought so great a saviour as Christ. Mary is also crushing the serpent’s head with her bare foot. Every multi-tasking mum can relate. Snake? I got this, no problem, while making lunch and correcting homework. This what God says to our every sin. Ooh, crucify my Son? Let’s see: I’ll make salvation for the world out of that. What else you got humanity? You can’t do anything wrong that I can’t jujitsu into grace. Happy fault that gave us so great a saviour as Christ.
A nun in Iowa doodled that icon in a chapter meeting. The sister beside her said, ‘ooh, that’s good, show the abbess.’ The monastery sent it out in a Christmas card. Careful what you doodle in a boring meeting. God might use it to bless the whole world.
Now as I ran some of this by my Bible study on Tuesday, folks got nervous. Okay, Christ’s grace reaches out to everyone. But does it catch everyone? Surely our behaviour matters, doesn’t it? Don’t we have to respond to grace with faith to be saved? I had a few funerals last week. And when I preach at your funerals, I will praise you up and down. Say how loved you were, how much you accomplished. I try as hard as I can to fling you into heaven. I don’t mention faults or flaws, don’t worry, not the right time. But then I will always say the same thing: what matters is not her character. His accomplishments. What matters is Christ’s grace. One family member asked me after: why should I behave then? If my character doesn’t matter at the graveyard? Great question. Let me tell you a story about that.
It comes from Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the last century. He tells this parable. There’s a man in a cabin. A knock at the door in the middle of the night. And a traveler on horseback asks for shelter. Where’d you come from? From across that clearing, the traveler says. The man looks grave. That’s no clearing. That’s a partially frozen lake. You sir are very lucky to be alive and not frozen and drowned at the bottom of it. Wow, the rider says, I had no idea what danger I was in. And he was overjoyed. I should be dead. Every moment from here on out is a gift. That’s how salvation works. We don’t know what danger we’re in until Jesus comes. Then we look back and say, wow, life without him was deadly, I had no idea. And now all I am is gratitude. We can’t earn our way to favour with God. Never works. Stop trying. No, God grants us favour in Christ, undeserved. And our whole life becomes a response of gratitude for a gift we never even knew to ask for. We don’t behave so Christ will accept us. That feels right intuitively but it’s exactly backwards. Christ accepts us undeserved, and so we behave only out of gratitude.
Another illustration, from another preacher, about an ordination interview. Candidate asked—look out that window. See that stranger? Describe that person theologically. Some say, ‘that’s a sinner in desperate need of salvation.’ Others say, ‘that’s someone forgiven by Christ, graced by the incarnation.’ Both answers are true. But those who answer the latter way, with grace, tend to make the better ministers. We might say the same of all of us: we are not wrong when we describe our fellow human beings as sinners. But we might be better Christians, better people, if we say of every person: they are flesh. They have a beating heart. A face. Like Jesus.
Sermons often close with a pitch for faith. In some traditions like my Methodist one there’s often an altar call, folks are invited forward to profess faith in Christ, and be saved. There’s health in that tradition—Timothy Eaton himself responded to an invitation like that in small town Ontario, I did too in rural North Carolina, maybe we should make that invitation sometime. But today we’re not. This text doesn’t say, “believe, be baptized, and be saved.” No, it says you don’t know who you are. You’ve forgotten you are royalty. Saved by Christ. Your ancestors are queens and kings, and you have their blood in your veins. So, I’m not asking you to do anything, anything at all, just realize the danger is past. Christ has already saved us. He’s made us born all over again. Thanks be to God. Amen.