Free Stuff

June 23, 2024

    Series: June 2024

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "Free Stuff"


    Romans 5:15-6:18
                15 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. 16And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17If, 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.

                18 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. 19For 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. 20But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

                6What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

                5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

                12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

                15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 

    Free Stuff

                A modern parable:  A teacher has two students.  The teacher says to the first, “I want you to go live a loving life, caring for neighbor, treating others as you would want to be treated.  If you do, there will be a great reward.”  The student sets out to do just that.  The teacher turns to the second student but instead gives them a reward first before saying, “Now, I’d like you to go out and live a loving life, caring for neighbor, treating others as you would want to be treated.”  The second student goes and does nothing.

                That’s how we tend to think it works.  Reward motivates action only if it comes afterwards.  Particularly divine reward, is what you get for being good, doing good. That’s the whole Christian formula, popularly understood.  And, before we critique it, we should acknowledge there is some utility to it insofar as it encourages people to live loving lives, caring for neighbors, abiding by the golden rule, even if for an external prize.

                You may be surprised to hear that his is not how the Apostle Paul says it works.  Paul, you’ll remember, is the most important figure in framing what the Jesus event means—his coming, dying, and rising.  We’re spending ten sermons exploring his wrestling with his world in light of God so we can better wrestle with our own.  Paul says the reward is a “free gift” (Romans 5:15).  As we said a couple weeks ago, it depends not on what we do, but on what Christ has done, what God has done in Christ, and, some would argue, that matters whether you believe it or not.  How’s that for overturning the formula so many of you have heard for much of your lives? Also as we said prior, I recognize many of you struggle with Paul.  I am not here to tell you that you must agree with him, only that you try and understand him because with Paul misunderstanding abounds.

                Let’s summarize Paul’s formulation as laid out in the passage you just heard.  In one person’s trespass, condemnation for all enters creation. (Notice, by the way, the one person is Adam not Eve.)  Likewise, through one person people are made right; justified is the theological term. Again, you do not have to accept that construct.  Some, such as Matthew Fox would say, no, death is not the result of some original transgression.  Death is part of the natural order, as he would contend is resurrection.  Neither is sin the result of this.  Nonetheless, this is how Paul thinks.  To him, something has taken up residence in the world causing destruction and harmfulness.  This is how he understands sin, not just as a collection of bad thoughts or deeds.  This is what you are seeing when you look out at injustice taking place.  It’s driven by what’s elsewhere called the “powers and principalities” (cf. Ephesians).  For Paul, these powers have actually been defeated by Christ whose reign has been inaugurated just not yet fully realized.  As the German New Testament scholar Peter Stuhlmacher puts it, “God’s action in Christ is more comprehensive in its effect than Adam’s Fall.”[1]In baptism, we symbolize that join in Christ in his crucifixion and his resurrection.

                Can we accept this good news?  “What do you mean, can we accept this?” you might ask, “This is great news.  Of course we can accept this!”  Yet think how attached we are to the concept of reward and punishment, to a formula where we must earn our way, and we certainly want others to earn theirs.  We seem to want a transactional relationship with God.  It may indeed be transactional in Paul’s formulation, but Christ is the benefactor.  Perhaps it is because we struggle to let go of the transactional that so many of our forebearers understood Jesus as “paying the price.”  I prefer the gift economy metaphor in which Christ is a gift, a sign that the universe is a loving, generous place.  Maybe this is what’s really true about the phrase, “God is good.”  Franciscan Richard Rohr says, “Until we meet a benevolent God and a benevolent universe, until we realize that the foundation of all is love, we will not be at home in this world.”[2] 

                Don’t rush past that statement.  Stop and recognize how radical it is, how counter to conventional wisdom it is to say “…until we realize that the foundation of all is love, we will not be at home in this world.”  We think to be at home in this world is to master the reward and punishment construct, to win the winner take all game, to conquer lest we be conquered, to build our own home.  Yet, I believe we know, our souls know, what Rohr says is true because we see that the conquerors are not truly happy.  They’re not at peace.  They are unsettled, restless, angry, aggrieved though they supposedly have everything, everything except the knowledge that what they are seeking is free. 

              It's free.  The gift, says Paul, is free.  The problem, or the challenge for us, is we don’t know what to do with free stuff. On the one hand, we love to get free stuff.  In his book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely did an experiment:

    Ariely set up a temporary candy stand on a college campus. Students had the choice of buying a Lindt truffle, a gourmet treat that typically sells for about $0.50, for just $0.15 or getting a Hershey’s Kiss worth about $0.05 for $0.01. Unsurprisingly, 73% of the passersby decided the truffle was a better deal.

    But when the experimenters dropped the price of both items by $0.01 — $0.14 for the truffle and free for the Kiss — suddenly the percentages reversed. Now 69% of the students found the free Hershey’s Kiss more appealing than the truffle even though the truffle was $0.36 off its retail price and the price difference for the Kiss was only $0.05.[3] 

    I love that Ariely’s book is called Predictably Irrational because it captures the fact conventional wisdom is made haywire by that which is freely given. 

                On the other hand, we don’t actually value free stuff.  We go haywire in the other direction.  In the commercial world, you can find all kinds of advice saying if you want to hold an event and have it be well attended, you have to charge for it. If it’s free, people are suspicious. They think it mustn’t be good or mustn’t be true if it’s free.  If you’d give it away, there must be a catch.[4]We don’t actually value it.

                This is what we’re up against if we are to get our minds or hearts around what Paul is saying, and maybe heart is the right starting point or pivot point, because the heart knows that what Christ symbolizes is so, that you don’t have to be a certain kind of good to earn God’s love.

                What then are we to do with this gift other than treasure it?  That is a question Paul addresses, and he addresses it with passion, as he does so many questions.  Should we use this unthinkable grace as reason, then, to go on and participate in sin, taking advantage of the gift to exploit the world around us?  Can we just ignore the material needs of those around us? “By no means!” is Paul’s resounding response (v. 15), which I described weeks ago as translating better as “Hell no!” That’s how fired up Paul is about this, pun intended.  We meet God logic with God logic – gift freely given, living loving lives, caring for neighbor, treating others as we would like to be treated free response.

                Another modern parable: A teacher has two students.  The teacher says to both students, “Here is a great reward.  Now, I want you to go live a loving life, caring for neighbor, treating others as you would want to be treated.”  The first student says, “Thank you and goes and does so.”  The second student turns to the teacher and asks, “But what if I don’t do as you have asked.  Can I still keep the reward?”  The teacher says nothing.


    [1]Peter Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans:  A Commentary trans. Scott J. Hafemann (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 87.