Saturday, 8 March 2014

Drowning with an Imaginary Man, Getting Dragged out by a Real One

From Romans 5
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.......

But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so 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.

You see, I don't believe Adam and Eve existed. Not in a real, flesh-and-blood, kind of way.

And you might say I have therefore negated Paul's argument, undermining it by taking away its very underlying premise. And I say to that phooey.

To me, it's about models when you're talking Adam and Eve. In the same way that God doesn't really have bowels with which to have compassion, or fly on the clouds of the thunderstorm - these are just ways of describing God's nature. In the same way that the quantum theory doesn't undermine the chemists who did their models based on the idea that atoms were bouncy balls. What was thought to be reality - when that was all the reality there was - is determined to be a model. And I reckon we have one such example here.

Because I do believe that sin came into the world with our first human parents, however you decide who they are - I wouldn't be surprised if that was an alternative definition of "human" - the first ones who could knowingly do wrong. It seems to set us out from other animals - this idea that we can do something despite knowing we shouldn't. It doesn't seem to be an attribute of other animals - except cats, maybe. But I reckon  when cats do something wrong, they revel in it... cats have no concept of guilt, no idea of needing to make recompense. Cats are just cats. They'll eat the family hamster without a qualm, and still come round to ask if they can share your curry.

The idea of sin like a genetic ailment  just feels so right. The whole "sin" thing just seems so baked-in.

Paul tells us that in fact the Jewish Law had a purpose with regard to this sin. Not a saving purpose in the first instance, but a purpose. I suppose the example I'd give is the flood gauge boards between Harrold and Carlton.

You must know where I mean? Harrold and Carlton are just a few hundred yards apart. They're separated by the River Ouse, and you get between them over a narrow old bridge with those kind of refuges where - in the old days - you'd let a haywain or whatever go past. While today you lurk there, wondering whether it's safe to go for it before the next Bedfordshire Young Conservative in a Beamer comes flogging it down the road after an afternoon's paintball in Bozeat.

But the point is - right next to the bridge, where the river bank gives way to water meadows - the danger of flooding is quite real at times of heavy rain. And there's a footpath, up above the floods, to protect pedestrians from the water and assorted Young Conservatives. And the footpath is on arches, so the water can race through when there's a  flood. And next to the arches there are these flood gauges.

And the flood gauges tell you how deep the water is. If you're actually in the water, in your car, they won't get you out. And they won't make the water go down.

But they'll tell you how deep the water is. And, if you're just dipping your tyres in the water, they'll tell you whether it's a bad idea to go any further. But they won't pull you out.

And Paul's saying - that's what the Jewish Law did. And that's a not a bad thing. You don't know how deep you're in unless you have a scale. You don't have the warning that you might get swept away. You just have to look out for the cars in front, going through the arches, to give you a clue.

But, Paul is saying, if you're in it up to your car roof, switching the windscreen wipers won't help. And the gauges aren't so useful either. And I don't want to push the analogy any further, and have Jesus as the bloke who dives down and drags us out of the flood. Actually, I can't see why I shouldn't. That's the whole point isn't it? When all logic would say that the best thing to do is stand on the bank, and throw a rope out to us and drag us back - safe and sound, just like the public information films used to tell us, Jesus doesn't do anything that safe. Disregarding the danger, ignoring all best practice in life saving, Jesus leaps in to where we are. Grabs a hold, if we let him, and pulls us out. The gauge board has told us the trouble we're in. If we've any sense, we're shouting out for help. We need someone to drag us out - preferably from a safe place. And yet Jesus jumps in, grabs us by the neck, and hauls us to the surface, gasping and panting for breath.

To the rest of us, real human beings who aren't Tom Daly, there's a limit to the sort of depth we're going to haul people out of. I remember when Young Keith was young, walking down the Husborne brook with him and his "uncle" the Police Constable. and Young Keith jumped in. Just out of a clear blue sky, no warning, no announcment of "Uncle!  Miss Fitzroy Russell! Keify's gonna swim!". Nope, just leapt in there. And, the brook being relatively shallow, I just stuck one hand in and pulled him out. No worries. Oh yeah, he was worried enough. But we knew he wasn't coming to any real harm.

Likewise when we used to practise "life saving" at school. In that 25-yard, algae-ridden, wee-infested swimming pool at St Mitholmroyd's School for the Children of Maladjusted Gentlefolk. And we'd don pajamas, and jump in, and head down to lift rubber weights from the bottom of the pool. From a depth, if memory serves me right, of about 9'. But if that pool had been 20' deep, you could have forgotten it. We wouldn't have been able to hold our noses long enough to get down there.

And so, in the human way of thinking, there's a depth beyond which even the bravest won't dive to retrieve a rubber weight, ring or 2 bob bit, according to whatever the teacher's throwing in the water today. The pearl fishers could dive 100 feet or more down, looking for those pearls of great price. But even they had to give up beyond a certain point.

And, for those brought up on a certain kind of attitude to sin and misbehaving, this analogy (ho ho) holds water. They get a sense that there's a place beyond which you can go, after which the rescue's not coming. Fall deep enough into whatever pattern of behaviour you've adopted, they suggest, and nobody can come and help you. When the water's so deep that the light's giving out, and the pressure is crushing the air out of your lungs, and you can feel your ears and eyes imploding with the force of the water you've stumbled into - then there's no way out. You can't swim up, and who can come and get you?

We can look at the way God is described - mighty, holy, unable to look on sin - and prescribe a point beyond which you can't fall. And some people define that point as being beyond the depth to which they've gone - but not so deep as some other people can all. And some look at a point way above their own heads - and think that's the depth from which you can be rescued. They're the too faults we can fall into. Either deciding that our God won't come for them - you know, them. The scruffy ones. The disrespectful ones. The useless ones. The ones that won't fit our mould.  Or thinking that their God - the one that saints are on speaking terms with - won't come for us..

And Paul says -  "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more". It's a simple message from Paul, for all the trouble we have to take to pick our way through it. There is no point to deep from which Christ can't pull us. There is no distance so far he can't come and get us. There's no thought so dark that the Man whose death was darkness doesn't understand it. Nowhere he's not going to reach you, nothing he's not going to do to come and get you - or, indeed, anyone else.

You may think you're a failure. You are. You may think you're unable to sort yourself out. On an eternal scale, that's right. You can patch stuff up, make a new start, on a limited basis - of course you can. But on a long-term basis you're on a hiding to nothing. You can think other people are much worse than you. You may be right. You're probably not, but let's go with it.

But no matter how deep, no matter how far, no matter how stupid the situation into which we fall, throw ourselves or are thrown - there's always someone down there with us, living it with us, down among the roots and the old tyres and the debris that's been washed down the river. With us, alongside us, hanging on to us, pouring breath into us - throwing his arm around us and heading for the sun and the surface.

There's a hell of a lot of sin in the world. So thank God, there's a whole lot more grace.


  1. Just wonderful! I wish I could preach half a well as that.

  2. That very nearly made me cry, at the simple clarity of it. Thank you.


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