For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In today’s Epistle, the Blessed Apostle Paul reminds his readers of who they are; out of what they have been saved, and what is now expected of them. “…As you have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.” In other words, even as before receiving the Gospel they used their bodies and minds in ways which sunk them deeper and deeper into sinfulness, so after receiving the Gospel they are to try to use those minds and bodies in ways which encourage and deepen their righteousness and holiness.
Many of us, I’m sure, can tell hair-raising stories of our past behavior. If we’re honest, we can even recall things that are more recent that we ought not to have done, or that we should have done, but didn’t. And of course our relationship with God requires us to look at our behavior critically, without flinching, before we can really begin to improve. We have to be candid, at least with ourselves and our Maker, about our flaws—which is a gentler way of saying, our sins.
Each of us here today is on a kind of journey, or path, toward God. Most of the major Catholic and Protestant catechisms teach us this within the first couple of questions. And all orthodox Christians are in agreement that the thing which separates us from God—the reason we have to journey toward Him rather than just reaching out and finding Him--is, very simply put, sin.
And what is sin? Many people, rather carelessly, think of sin as somehow synonymous with crime; the transgression of some statute or other, punishable in proportion to the damage caused by it. This is understandable in a secular society; after all, the function of secular law is to protect people from each other, and (at least not primarily) to protect them from themselves—unless, of course, it gets legislators re-elected, but here I am in danger of sliding from sermon to political editorial, and I must abandon that potentially fruitful digression. The categories of “crime”and “sin”overlap, to be sure, but they are not synonymous. A sexual act between two people, married but not to each other, is not a crime in most parts of this country, but it is certainly a sin, and a mortal one to boot. In the same way, concealing a political refugee from immigration officials who intend to deport him to his country which means to execute him for holding prohibited views may be a crime, but not a sin.
Put most simply, sin is the deliberate disobedience of God’s will. There is really nothing more to add to that definition; it covers any occasion which might be described as sinful. The first sin of humanity, in the Garden, was one of disobedience : it was God’s will that Adam and Eve not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and yet they ate of it. The most recent sin that you committed, whether mortal or venial, active or passive, was one of disobedience : I can guarantee it. Whether you stabbed your brother in the back in a fit of rage or simply took a pencil home from the supply cabinet at work, you disobeyed the will of God, and that is the primary characteristic which marks an act as a sin.
But we’re all Christians here, right? And so we’ve left all that behind, haven’t we? The reality, of course, is that we have not. If we really had left sin behind, we probably wouldn’t need to be here. I’m sure we’ve all heard someone we know say, “I used to go to church, but I got tired of it because everybody there is a hypocrite.” I have always found this amusing, in a sad way, because it’s tantamount to saying that you used to enjoy hospitals until you found that they were full of sick people. If we weren’t sinners, we wouldn’t need church.
All of which shouldn’t give us the idea that sin is okay. It is most certainly not okay. But what the Blessed Apostle is getting at here is this : you have made a decision to become Christians. You belong to Jesus now, just as before your baptism you belonged to the Prince of this world. And just as your behavior before you joined the family of God sunk you deeper and deeper into the mire of sin which separated you from Him, so your behavior now should bring you ever closer to Him. When we were the servants of sin, says Paul, we were free of righteousness; but now that we are God’s servants, we should be free from sin. The end of these things, he says—referring to sin—is death, and the fruit of holiness is everlasting life.
With such a choice before us, you’d think it would be easy to make the right decision all the time. Unfortunately, as I’m sure we’re all too aware, our ancient foe doesn’t want that to happen; and deep down inside, I suspect there’s a part of all of us that doesn’t want that to happen either. We human beings are far too comfortable with our homey vices for our own good; far too unwilling to break our cozy habits, even when they have ceased to bring us the most meager crumb of pleasure. In this respect, sin is an addictive substance, like heroin : the early forays bring a wickedly sharp thrill, all the more enjoyable for being illicit because you feel like you’re getting away with something, but then you find that more and more of it is necessary to capture that initial frisson : and finally, you wind up continuing it wholly out of habit, because you are unable to stop, even though it brings no joy at all, and even though you have come to loathe yourself for it. If you’ve ever known someone who was addicted—really addicted—to such a drug, then you know what I’m referring to. And if you’ve ever known a human being, you’ve known someone with the same relationship to sin as a junkie has to heroin.
For addictions, of course, there are treatments. Most of them are effective, but they can only be lastingly effective if the addict really wants to stop. You can take a junkie into rehab, put him through detoxification, monitor him while he’s in the hospital to make sure it’s all out of his system, clean him up and all the rest, and if he doesn’t really want to stop taking the drug, then he’ll be back on it within a week. He has to realize he has a problem, and to want to solve it. Likewise, for sin, there is a treatment. It begins with the baptism of the sinner, continues with instruction and regular worship, his confirmation, weekly reception of the sacrament (at a minimum), and confession as needed. But in order for this treatment to be effective also, the patient must be committed to making an effort—however miniscule—to throw off the yoke of sin.
We are promised that if we make this effort, we will receive assistance, and that our continued efforts will bear fruit. We must trust this promise, and never allow ourselves to despair that our efforts are in vain—for despair is a victory for our enemy. We must remain committed to our course of treatment.
The wages of sin is death. Death, as in the grave; death, as in the deadness of our spirits to God’s grace; death, as in our eternal exile from His presence. But the fruit of holiness is everlasting life, through and in Jesus Christ. We are being reminded of the choice that lies before us; the choice we made at our baptism, the choice we make each time we rise from our knees to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, the choice we are faced with each time we are tempted to do those things we ought not to do, or to leave undone those things we ought to do. The blessing or the curse : the choice is ours. May God give us grace to choose life, that we may live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.