Preaching Romans

Some of my friends like Jason Micheli, Fleming Rutledge, and Douglas Campbell have just published a book on Preaching Romans, edited by Joseph B. Modica and Scot McKnight.  Here’s my sermon on Romans 5 that I contributed, my attempt to preach the newly discovered “apocalyptic Paul.”



Lent 1: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. . . . Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. . . . If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore 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. (Rom. 5:6, 8, 14–18 NRSV)

I tell my seminarians, when you get out of Duke Divinity and into your first pastorate, get close to alcoholics in your congregation. Work with them, have them promise to try harder to do better, make them sign pledges that they will stop drinking, stay up late with them and pray. That will do more to cure you of your little liberal, Sunday school, superficial theology than anything I know.

It’s a terminal illness. They don’t get better by sincerely wanting to get better.

As far as I know, I’m not an alcoholic, but I do have a history of dieting. “We’ve learned one thing about diets,” a distinguished Duke physician recently said. “Diets don’t work.”

I stand on the bathroom scales, read the numbers, and cry, “Fake news!”

Dip your hand into that potato chip bag and promise the Lord that you will eat just one handful. Five minutes later your head is buried in the bag!

This human, all-too-human, inclination, this trappedness, Paul colorfully calls “the old Adam.” Remember old Adam? God put the first humanoids in a lush garden, so rich and bountiful they didn’t need to work. God said, “Be fruitful and multiply” (the most gracious command God ever gave us). Oh, and one other thing: “Stay off that tree over there.” You can eat fruit from the hundreds of other trees, but not that tree.

Well, you know the story. The minute God’s back was turned, Adam saw that the forbidden fruit looked tasty, even more appealing because of God’s prohibition.

“Did God say?” asked the serpent, the first theologian. “You won’t die!” So Adam took and ate, and Eve did the same, and let’s just say human innocence (if that’s what it was) lasted for what, fifteen minutes?

It’s been downhill ever since. Old Adam progressed, or regressed, from that primal act of rebellion to misbehavior on a more cosmic scale. The forbidden fruit is eaten, one of Adam’s sons bashes in the head of the other, strife between men and women who were created to be mutually fruitful, raping and pillaging, wars and rumors of wars, terrorists and terror against terrorists, liars and adulterers (for whom we voted). Our sin has gotten loose into the whole cosmos, says Paul.

The Old Adam

Paul, in writing to First Church Rome, uses shorthand for all that rebellion—the old Adam.

Pick up the newspaper, read of some fresh deceit out of Washington, the latest move of the powerful against the powerless—Paul wants you to think, Adam. Try, really try to break some self-destructive habit and fail. Paul says, “It’s Adam all over again.”

A physician sweeps his hand across the horizon of the Duke Medical Center and says, “We figure that over half of those rooms are occupied by patients who are sick because of bad lifestyle choices. Say, preacher, why do we choose an early death over a longer life?”

“Well, you see,” I explained, “it goes way back, even before the invention of cigarettes, whiskey, and potato chips, back to our forebear, Adam, whose DNA we’ve never been able to flush out of our systems.”

When I hear of Trump’s latest lie or racist gaff, I say, “I’d like to take one of those cheap, tough Trump steaks and cram it down his lying little . . .” Then Saint Paul says to me, “Sounds like your great, great granddaddy old Adam. You are members of the same family. Only difference between you and The Donald is the color of your hair.”

As we began a new millennium, President Bush proclaimed a “New World Order.” How has that worked out? I voted for President Obama under the banner, “Yes we can!” No, we can’t.

It’s like I’m caught. As Paul said elsewhere, “I’m miserable! The good that I would do, I can’t. Who will deliver me from this slavery to sin and death?” (Rom. 7:23–24) Sin is original (from our origins), universal (all), indomitable (can’t think your way out of it), and undeniable. Old Adam.

An even more depressing aspect of being branches on Adam’s family tree is that even our best attempts to do good are tainted by our bad. Nobody has ever started a war in order to do bad. We only kill by lethal injection or a drone in order to stop killing. I’ve never told a lie—except for somebody else’s good. Old Adam.

When I was a sixteen-year-old at a church youth conference, the adults asked, “Since you are such a good Christian boy, would you be willing to have a black roommate here at the conference?” And I, nice Christian boy, said, “Sure, I’d love to self-validate my goodness.”

We were from the same hometown, even though we went to different schools, different churches next door to each other. That Saturday, in a late-night conversation, he asked, “Does it bother you that you get on a Greenville city bus with a big sign, ‘S. C. Law. Colored patrons sit from the rear. White patrons sit from the front’?”

“Uh, never thought about it, I guess,” I replied.

“Does it bother you that neither you nor your church has ever thought about that sign?” The address of the old Adam? It’s my America, my soul.

The United Methodist bishops, in a grand display of self-importance, voted to end malaria. The Episcopal bishops said, “We’re not going to take that sitting down,” and voted to end poverty. That led to the Methodist bishops promising to “end killer diseases in Africa.” That’s showing ’em!

As Paul put it, it’s not only that I’m born and bred to lean toward the wrong; it’s that I’m never more wrong than when I sincerely, earnestly try to put myself right. Old Adam is me all over.

Alcoholics Anonymous knows this, that huge first step of the twelve: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Oh unmanageable me. Old Adam.

If we weren’t all the offspring of old Adam, we wouldn’t have had to begin this service with a Prayer of Corporate Confession, admitting that though we would like to make church the location for some minor moral tuning, a place where the good go to become a bit better, where we unleash our “better angels,” church begins with the Adamic Confession, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, there is no health in us.”

“I believe in man!” proclaimed William Faulkner when he got the Nobel Prize. He who wrote some of the most honest novels about the fallenness of the human condition flinched at the end, saying, “I believe in man”?

Oh, that’s right, Faulkner was drunk when he said it.

I noted as a bishop that whenever there’s a serious moral lapse among clergy, there’s always someone to say, “Well, goes to show, pastors are only human.”

Interesting. We use that phrase, “only human,” to indicate us at our worst.

So old Adam is a nice metaphor, not just for the bad things we do, but also for who we are, down deep, from our first. Oh, we fantasize that we could just run the video in reverse, to a rerun of Eden, regurgitate the forbidden fruit, and get the old Adam out of our hardwiring.

Paul, in Romans, links sin with death. We’re like some robot that attempts to go on its own by unplugging itself from the source of its life. It continues to run for a while, but the robot eventually goes dead. I’ve spent my ministry standing with many sad people who tried to live their lives on their own, who thought they had within themselves the key to the good life. It’s a way that leads to death, sometimes death while you’re still breathing.

“Who will rescue me from this body of death?” asks Paul. Our situation is such that we don’t need some new technique, a fresh self-help program, or governmentally subsidized plan. Paul’s right: we need nothing less than divine rescue.

That’s one reason why I have loved the recovering alcoholics in my congregations and have regarded them as the closest thing we have to real saints. They have learned the truth about our infection by the old Adam the hard way and have dared to tell the truth about us.

A preacher in Houston (I’m not going to mention the name since I’m such a nice Christian boy) ladles out sweet bromides: “You are good. You mean well. These negative people keep trying to pull you down. Don’t let ’em. You begin your day looking into the mirror and (repeat after me), ‘I will have a good day.’ ‘I will do my best and be the best.’”

And I’m watching this and thinking, “They’re Texans, for God’s sake!”

No, I’m thinking, “Paul will never be allowed to preach from that pulpit.”

Repentance is not when I say, “I will accept Jesus as my Savior. I will dedicate my life to Christ.” Repentance begins in Lent when the church teaches me honestly to admit to the bad news about myself and the good news about God: “I can’t choose God; I need a God who, wonder of wonders, chooses me.” “If I’m going to be free to choose life rather than death, God will have to do it for me.”

You can’t make yourself right simply by resolving to do so. Sin isn’t just your bad habits and unfortunate decisions. It’s so deep in our thinking and acting that when we try to take matters in hand and solve our God problem, we produce more sin.

“Man produces evil like a bee produces honey,” said the novelist William Golding.

Paul’s Gospel in a Nutshell

Here’s Paul’s gospel in a nutshell: In Christ, God has decisively, once and for all, done something about our sinful, death-dealing servitude. Christ gets us out of the mess that the old Adam got us into. Whereas in Adam God was disobeyed, the new Adam, when presented (in this Sunday’s Gospel) with the tempting offers of miraculous power, political clout, and freedom from suffering, said “No!” and Satan slinked away, defeated.

That’s the good news Paul presents after his sober, pessimistic, yet truthful bad news. Adam is who we really are.

But who is God? God is Jesus Christ, whom Paul names the new Adam. Christ is the fresh start that we fantasized about but could never make for ourselves. The God whom we disobeyed and even crucified is determined to be God for us.

To put all this in context, the man who wrote this letter to First Church Rome in which he so soberly described the dead end that is the fate of the progeny of the old Adam, that man was the capo of the death squad that worked terrorist acts throughout Judea, Paul. He preached that the one whom we nailed to a cross responded by turning the other cheek, looked down on us, saying, “Father, forgive, they don’t know, have never known, will not know what they are doing. Forgive ’em. It’ll teach ’em a lesson.”

Church, this is good news indeed—not that we have succeeded in loving God, but that in Christ God loved us. We were made by God, not to disobey and rebel, but to know and to live into this good news.

I can’t explain it, but I can sing it: in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has made a fresh start with us, the world has been re-created, rebooted. We’re not living in the realm of the old Adam with its dog-eat-dog-survival-of-the-fittest-we’re-number-one-get-them-before-they-get-you deadness. We’re in a whole new world where new Adam reigns.

I asked her why she liked being a Methodist. She responded, “I spent thirty-five years thinking God was mad at me. Then somebody told me the news that God loves sinners.”

The new Adam (Christ) has brought us along with him through death and resurrection. It’s a whole new ball game between us and God, as if God has gone back and restarted creation. When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher brought a scared little towheaded boy into our class and introduced him as a “misplaced person.”

“He’s come from Poland because he lost his family in the war. He’s come here for freedom and a new life.”

Jimmy Preston leaned over to me and said, “Poland must suck if displaced persons got to come to Greenville for a better life.”

Well, we tried to help him with his English and get to know him. One problem, though. He stole our lunches. He stole food out of our lunch boxes. The teacher told him not to. He said he wouldn’t. But almost every day somebody was in tears and the teacher uncovered the lost sandwich in his desk.

Janie Jones came crying to the teacher about her lost Twinkie. In desperation the teacher took hold of the displaced person and said, “Look at me! There’s plenty of food now. You will never be hungry again. If you ever need food, ask me. You’re in America. It’s a whole new world.”

And I tell you, looking into his eyes, I knew he understood. His eyes opened. He was in a whole new world. He never stole again.

Well, something like that has happened to us, says Paul. Wake up. We’ve been placed in a relationship with God that we couldn’t make for ourselves. Elsewhere Paul proclaims, “If someone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has departed. Behold, he has become quite new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

That’s you. What happens in baptism? They asked Martin Luther. Luther explained: in baptism the old Adam is drowned so that the new you can be born.

Christ has reinvented you, has reconstructed the world so that now God looks at you and smiles, “Yes! This is what I had in mind when I made you! Yes! Now, my new creation, go claim the new world.

3 thoughts on “Preaching Romans

  1. Thanks Will. I’m always amazed when preachers don’t think we need a prayer of confession in every service. Grace and Peace, Greg

    On Thu, Feb 21, 2019 at 6:39 PM A Peculiar Prophet wrote:

    > willwillimon posted: “Some of my friends like Jason Michelli, Fleming > Rutledge, and Douglas Campbell have just published a book on Preaching > Romans, edited by Joseph B. Modica and Scot Mcknight. Here’s my sermon on > Romans 5 that I contributed, my attempt to preach the newly d” >


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