First Sunday in Lent (A): Understanding Our Story
- Timothy J. Peck Director of Chapel Programs and adjunct professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.
- 2013 12 Dec
Each of us has a unique story. We live our lives in story mode, as the narratives of our individual lives intersect with the stories of others. Each story is unique. Each has its own heroes and villains, its own twists and turns of plot. Yet often we have trouble understanding how our own story fits with other people's stories, and ultimately how it fits within God's story. In this section from Romans, the apostle Paul shows us how our life stories are intertwined with the stories of the two most significant individuals to have lived in human history.
Adam's Story (Rom. 5:12-14)
Romans 5:12-14 focuses on the impact of Adam's story on our stories. Though Paul presents us with a bare thumbnail sketch of Adam's life in these verses, he assumes his readers are fully acquainted with the biblical story of Adam from Genesis 2 and 3. Through Adam's act of disobedience, sin entered the world. In verse 12, sin is personified, as if it were an actor making his or her entrance onto a stage.1 In a way that Paul does not fully explain, Adam's first act of disobedience opened the door for this character known as sin to walk onto the stage of human history. Like a shadow, death followed sin's entrance. Wherever sin went on the stage, death followed on its heels. Like a deadly toxin, sin spread and infected everyone. The proof of this universal infection is the fact that everyone sins.
Paul's point is to show us that our experience of sin and death is directly connected to Adam's disobedience. Until we see how our own stories intersect with Adam's story, we won't fully understand why sin and death plague us. We will be tempted to explain away sin as a mere social phenomenon or the result of ignorance.
I heard recently about an entire national forest in Oregon that had been infected by a fungus.2 This fungus started as a single microscopic spore, but it's been weaving its way through this forest for about 2,400 years, killing tress as it grows. Today, this fungus has infected 2,200 acres of this national forest. Essentially the fungus is a gigantic mushroom you can't see from the ground, but it's killed hundreds of thousands of tress, all from a single spore. That's similar to how Adam's sin opened the door for sin and death to spread through the entire human race.
Christ's Story (Rom. 5:15-19)
This brings us to the other person with whom our stories are intertwined: Jesus Christ. Just as he sketched Adam's story, Paul sketched Jesus' story. Here we find that Jesus was able to undo all the consequences Adam's sin had set into motion. The principle Paul affirmed is that it takes far more effort to clean up a mess than to make the mess.3
Although Jesus' story and Adam's story share a certain correspondence, Jesus is the superior figure, because through His death He was able to set right all that Adam set wrong. In these verses, Paul wants us to understand our own stories as intertwined with the story of Jesus. Just as our experience of sin and death was connected to Adam's disobedience, our experience of restoration with God is directly connected to Jesus Christ's obedience.
We can't understand our stories without understanding the human story. We can't understand the human story without understanding how the two most important people in human history have impacted our lives. More than our parents, siblings, the world's philosophers and rulers, we've been impacted by Adam and Jesus. In Adam, we all experience death; in Jesus, we're offered restoration with God, liberation from sin and death, forgiveness and love.
People often go to counseling to understand how other people have affected them. We often find ourselves doing things we don't understand, responding to other people in ways that are destructive and don't make sense. It's that kind of confusion that often drives people to a counselor or therapist, who often tries to help clients understand how the significant people in their lives have impacted them.
Once we understand how a father's abuse or a mother's abandonment affects us, we can better understand why we cut people off, why we can't express our own emotions, or whatever our specific problem is. Freedom comes through insight into how other people have impacted us. We find something similar here: We must understand the impact of Adam and Jesus on our lives before we can understand what it means to know and love God.
1 Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Vol. 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 411.
2 The Daily News (8/5/00), cited from PreachingToday.com.
3 Paul Achtemeier, Romans: Interpretation Commentary (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), p. 98.