A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Romans 5:1-11
What would be enough? What would be enough to correct, to rectify, to make up for, to forgive all of my past, present, and future wrongs? What would be enough to make the world right again? What on earth could be enough?
Repentance is not enough. That is probably an odd thing to hear from a pulpit, but I stand by my words. Don’t believe me? Just ask the mother whose child is killed in a car wreck due to buzzed driving. The teenage driver apologizes. Repentance is important, but it is not enough. Their repentance doesn’t bring back that child; it is not enough to reverse sin and death.
Accountability is not enough. Another odd thing to say from the pulpit, but again, I stand by it. Don’t believe me? Just travel to South Carolina and ask the Murdaugh family. Alex Murdaugh, unrepentant, will have to spend his life behind bars, but accountability is not enough. Accountability is important, but it won’t bring back Maggie and Paul; it is not enough to reverse sin and death.
In the suffering of this world, in the wake of sin and death, we come to these two conclusions: Repentance is not enough, and accountability is not enough. We need stronger medicine if we want these things to change, if we want the curse of sin and death to be broken. We need help from outside ourselves to save us from ourselves.
Throughout Lent we are talking about the cross and how it accomplishes our atonement. We can talk about the atonement as at-one-ment: How God makes us one with him again, bringing us back into relationship after the rupture at the Garden of Eden, defeating the power of sin and death, reversing the curse. God does this on the cross. As I’ve said, something is wrong and must be made right. We cannot do it. Only God can do it by the cross.
How the cross brings about our redemption is a great mystery. It does it in a lot of ways we will never get to the bottom of. No single theory or image is enough to explain it all; we need to consider the cross from many angles. Last week we talked about recapitulation. God in Christ writes a new story, becomes the new Adam, so we can share in a new humanity. Another way is through substitution. The substitution is Christ stepping into the ungodly place of all humanity, and in his godly perfection, taking the judgment for our sin upon himself and dying in our place on the cross.
There is a straightforward and powerful logic to the substitution:
Here’s how St. Paul puts it in our reading from Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly [that’s you and me].” Paul continues, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ died for us. Christ died for our sin. Christ died to free us from sin and death by taking our place, because we could never do it. It’s as simple as that.
St. Anselm of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109, said it this way: “Christ freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it, and he purchased for us the kingdom of heaven; and by doing all these things, he manifested the greatness of his love toward us.”
More recently, Karl Barth, a Protestant theologian of the 20th century, put it like this: “The very heart of the atonement is the overcoming of sin. It was to fulfill [the] judgment on sin that the Son of God as man took our place as sinners. We can say indeed that Christ fulfills this judgment by suffering the punishment which we have all brought on ourselves.”
To effectively accomplish this for us, Christ’s death could not be any death. Fittingly, it had to be a shameful death on the cross, the death reserved for enslaved persons in the Roman world. Theologian Fleming Rutledge explains, “Jesus’ situation under the harsh judgment of Rome was analogous to our situation under Sin. He was condemned; he was rendered helpless and powerless; he was stripped of his humanity; he was reduced to the status of a beast, declared unfit to live and deserving of a death proper to slaves.” Rutledge’s point is that is what sin has done to humanity since the Fall. It has rendered us unhuman, out of relationship, separated from God and one another, full of shame and guilt, enslaved to the power of sin and death. Christ’s death, and the manner of it, must deal with that reality.
In taking our place on the cross, substituting himself for us, God in Christ takes the just penalty for our sin. God in Christ enters into our desperate and shame-filled situation. God in Christ dies in our stead, so that we can live forever in him. God in Christ does it, because we could not do it. The righteous One dies for the ungodly, for you and me, so that we might become righteous through him.
Our feeble attempts at repentance and accountability are, in the end, incomplete. We can’t solve what is wrong on our own. God knows that. But in love and mercy and compassion, God says, “I’ll do it for you.” God in Christ, the Son, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, walks the way once marked for us and for all of humanity, from judgment to Calvary. Because Christ has walked that way for us, you and I, the ungodly, can walk a new way, from forgiveness to life.
I began by asking what would be enough to forgive all of my past, present, and future wrongs, to make things right again? All of our efforts at repair are never enough; our striving is never enough to conquer the power of sin and death. What on earth would be enough? God–only God. God in Christ has come to earth to be enough. What Christ has done on the cross is enough. Enough to make things right again; enough to break the power of sin and death. It’s more than enough, for you, for me, for our sin, and for the sin of the whole world.
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