A priest was visiting with a new parishioner and asked, “How’s your relationship with God?” The parishioner says, “There’s not much to tell. I like sinning. God likes forgiving. We get along just fine.”
That story is an adaptation of some lines from W. H. Auden’s poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. In the poem King Herod’s responds to the magi’s news of the Savior’s birth and the grace and forgiveness it brings with these words:
Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.’
I sort of like the “admirably arranged” world Auden describes. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It doesn’t ask much of me. I can make my apology to you when I’ve done something wrong or hurtful, offer a quick “Please forgive me God,” and go on about life. It’s business as usual. I get to do what I like and God gets to do what God likes.
What about you? Does this sound familiar? Do your life and faith sometimes express Auden’s “admirably arranged” world? At times this is how I’ve lived my life. I’ve seen it in the lives of others.
The problem with an “admirably arranged” world is that wounds aren’t healed. Relationships are not put back together. Lives are not transformed. Nothing really changes. Too often we settle for an “admirably arranged” world Instead of becoming, as we prayed for in today’s collect, “a holy temple acceptable to [God].”
We’re not, however, the first or the only ones to think or live this way. Before Auden wrote his lines St. Paul dealt with the same issue in his Letter to the Romans. “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:12-23, Proper 8A)
Our relationship with God in Christ is more than an admirable arrangement. We have an identity with Christ. “Whoever welcomes you,”Jesus tells his disciples, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:41). By our baptism we have been immersed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We share his life. We have been Christed. We speak with his mouth, see with his eyes, walk with his feet, touch with his hands. That means we now re-present Christ to the world. We live his life in this time and place.
Sometimes, however, we choose not to live that life. We turn away. We deny ourselves the life Jesus has given us. We live less than who we most truly are. St. Paul calls that sin. This isn’t simply a question of good or bad, right or wrong, keeping or breaking rules. Ultimately, it’s a choice between life and death.
Maybe that’s why St. Paul is so adamant in his Letter to the Romans. Christ is our way and our life. We are a part of him and he is who we are and who we are to become. In some way St. Paul is telling us to become who we really are.
- Do not sin.
- Do not be an instrument of wickedness.
- Present yourselves to God.
- Be an instrument of God’s righteousness.
St. Paul is like the parent who says to his or her child, “I expect more of you. Do this. Don’t do that. You can do better. You are more than that.” As a child we hear those words as harsh, critical, judgmental. Loving parents, good parents, however, say those words seeing more in their child than what he or she sometimes sees for himself or herself. They are words that call their child into the fullness of life, to be whole, complete, and fully alive. That’s what St. Paul is doing.
I am uncomfortably grateful for his words. He challenges me to examine my life and see the ways in which I have denied myself the very life I say I want. He reminds me that I have a choice and so do you. We are responsible. We choose what our life will be like. We choose to whom we listen. We choose to whom we give ourselves and our obedience.
This is not to deny God’s grace. Grace is absolutely real. But it is not a get out of jail free card. Rather, grace is the power of God’s love and the means of God’s presence that enables us to make a different choice, a better choice, a choice to live and to love as Jesus. That is something an “admirably arranged” world can never give us.
The crook of whom King Herod speaks will forever be sneaking around, hiding in the dark, and living in fear of being found out. That is no way to live and it is not the life Jesus offers. That kind of life is a living death. It leave us empty, hollow, and impoverished. We weren’t meant for that.
We have been freed from that, freed from the power of sin. We are now free to live Jesus’ life, eternal life right here and right now. Now go live that way. Receive the gift. No more sneaking. No more hiding. No more fearing. No more admirably arranged lives.