In the movie The Matrix everything is an illusion. The promo tells us that although the humans think it is 1999, it is really two centuries later. The lives everyone believes they are living are really just dreams they are having inside virtual reality (the Matrix). Inside the Matrix, we meet computer programmer Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves), who goes by the hacker name "Neo." A group of people comes to Neo's door, and when Neo gives them a disk with the illegal software they want, the leader says (foreshadowing what is to come), "Hallelujah. You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ." Neo believes he's living a normal, but slightly troubled life in 1999. By day, he is a computer programmer for a large, generic software company; by night, a hacker, providing the fruits of his labors to other troubled souls. He lives alone, he doesn't sleep, and there's a profound emptiness in his life, but it's something he can't put his finger on - until he is contacted by Trinity. Morpheus has sent Trinity to contact Neo, believing he is The One of prophecy. Morpheus explains it to Neo in this way: "When the Matrix was first built there was a man born inside that had the ability to change what he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was this man who freed the first of us and taught us the truth. When he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and envisioned that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix." Neo is the Chosen One, the savior, and the one who will lead his people to freedom. But in order to do that, he must sacrifice himself, and rise from the dead. Sounds familiar, doesn't it! I want us to keep this is mind as we take a brief look at today's reading from Romans chapter 5.
Did you notice how many times in today's reading Jesus was described as a "gift" or a "free gift"?—five times in just three verses. In verse 15 Paul says: "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." The free gift is not like the trespass (or the sin). How is the free gift God gives us in Jesus different from Adam's sin? It's different in every way, isn't it? Paul begins in verse 12 by pointing out where following Adam got us:
"Through one man … sin."
"Through sin … death." (Why?)
"Because all have sinned."
Of course the s-word ("sin") is very unpopular today. Paul believed that the story of Adam in Genesis tell us the truth about our relationships with God and other people. He would probably also have said that our own experience of life tells us that we are basically self-centred rather than God-centred. We share Adam's failure and its consequences "because all have sinned." More recently, a Christian writer (Bernard Ramm in Offense to Reason: A Theology of Sin) explained the s-word this way:
"the word sin best describes the evils in human existence.
The litany of sin includes crimes, wars, lawsuits, … It also includes those more polite and subtle ways humans abuse each other. It denotes, family problems, national problems, and international problems. It includes personal vices and the vices of governments. … sin is violence; sin is inhuman response to tragic human suffering.
The concept of sin is not limited to Christian theology. Every work on ethics presumes unethical behaviour which is but a synonym for sin. All great philosophers wrestle with the problem of evil. All the world’s religions presume something is amiss with the human species, and the Christian word for it is sin.
Furthermore, no human life can stand ultimate scrutiny."
This is the world in which we live—it is our everyday experience—but it is not the world as it should be. For the world to be as it should be, we need a Chosen One, a saviour, one who will lead his people to freedom. Paul's point in Romans 5 is that the good news is that unlike Adam, and unlike us, Christ obeyed God. And the really incredible news is that just as we shared Adam's disobedience, so now we have been given a free share in Christ's obedience.
"In Adam" we sin, we are guilty before God, we die.
But “in Christ", we are obedient, we are righteous, we live.
This is God's free gift to us! Paul is often said to present us with "two ways to live" in this passage. But he really presents us with "one way to live"—in Christ. Did you hear it as we listened to the second half of the passage?
v. 15: One man—grace
v. 16: One man—justification
v. 17: One man—grace and righteousness.
One man, Jesus Christ!
Before I had children and could afford to buy CDs I got an early album by the American band Live (Mental Jewelry). One of the songs interestingly called "Operation Spirit" contains these lyrics:
"Heard a lot of talk about this Jesus
A man of love, a man of strength
But what a man was two thousand years ago
Means nothing at all to me today."
You may not have heard the song, but I expect you have heard people say much the same thing. But the Christian message has never been that Jesus was just "A man of love, a man of strength." If what Paul says is true, Jesus is "The One."
Let me conclude by emphasizing another difference between Adam and Christ in today's reading that we can easily miss. The great biblical teacher John Calvin described that difference this way: "Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to destroy." Let me repeat that: "Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to destroy." Maybe we can hear this point if we listen to the last verses in another translation:
"If one man's sin put crowds of people at the dead-end of separation from God, just think what God's gift poured through one man, Jesus Christ, will do! There's no comparison between that death-giving sin and this life-giving gift. The judgment on that one sin was the death sentence; the verdict on the many sins that followed was this wonderful life sentence. If death got control of us through one man's wrongdoing, can you imagine the breathtaking recovery life makes in the people who take hold with both hands of this wildly extravagant life-gift that the one man Jesus Christ provides?" (adapted from The Message)
I just love that expression: "wildly extravagant life-gift." I hope and pray that your experience of Christmas is of this wildly extravagant life-gift that the one man Jesus Christ provides.