Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Romans 5:12-21

Death through Adam, Life through Christ

     12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— 13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

     15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Again, the gift of God is not like the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

     18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all people, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

     20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

My first inclination is always to skip over this passage. It’s based on what the theologians call a “literalist” interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s to say that it’s based on the assumption Adam and Eve were actual, historical figures.

And personally, I don’t embrace the literalist interpretation. I understand that the story of Adam and Eve is a parable – it’s a story that communicates important theological truth, but isn’t meant to represent historical fact. The truth I think it’s meant to communicate is that suffering and evil in the world are largely the result of the sinful human tendency to disobey God’s law, and to decide for ourselves what’s good and what’s evil.

But whether you think the story of Adam and Eve is historical fact or parable, it can still be acknowledged as containing important spiritual truth. And if that’s the case, we should pay attention to what the apostle Paul has written here, so that we can get his take on what that spiritual truth might be.

Paul says that sin and death entered the world through one man – Adam – and that many years later, new life entered the world through another man – Jesus. Actually, Paul writes that another man – Moses – marked another stage of God’s relationship with humankind. In Paul’s scheme, Moses was the messenger through whom God sent the law into the world. So history is divided up into a time of chaos before the law, then a time when the law had been given but people couldn’t keep it successfully, then Jesus came and provided a new way for us to be reconciled to God apart from the law. (Which is good, as it turns out, since we can’t keep the law any more faithfully than the Jews had.)

Actually, it seems to me that Paul’s scheme works on a theological level, even if you don’t accept the idea that Adam was a real, historical figure.

Paul goes on to say that the suffering that came about because of human sinfulness was, in a sense, “self-inflicted” by humankind. People sin, we fail to love God and neighbor, and we act angrily and selfishly. So the result is that the world is a chaotic and brutal place – literally, a lawless place. And since it’s full of suffering because of human sinfulness, humankind can’t claim that suffering is unjustified. God sent the law through Moses to give humankind a set of principles for living in peace and harmony, but people tend to do a poor job of living by those principles.

But then, around 4 BC, God did something that’s gracious beyond any reason: Even though humankind has always lived angrily, selfishly, and sinfully, God left the order and safety of heaven, and come into this world. Then he made a great act of self-sacrifice to make a way for us to have new and abundant life through Jesus. And because of that great act, many people have been declared innocent in the eyes of God.

There’s something interesting here. If you look close, you might notice that Paul doesn’t see this great self-sacrifice out of God’s gracious love just as a thing of the past – just as an historical event. Paul sees it as a present reality for those of us who follow Jesus. The death of Jesus is meant to change the way his followers live out our faith today. We’re not just followers of some insightful moral philosopher of the first century. We’re called to obey his teachings, and that means living in imitation of his sacrificial love.

And Paul says there’s even more to what God did in Jesus. It’s not just about the past and the present – it’s also a reality that points to a promise for the future. Paul says God is at work establishing a new reign – a righteous kingdom that holds the promise and hope of eternal life for those who follow Jesus.

It’s important to notice that Paul describes all this – the new and righteous kingdom brought about through the self-sacrifice of Jesus – as all a gift from God. (The theme of grace shows up again.) It’s not something we could claim to have earned. Or to deserve. It’s a gift out of God’s gracious love for which we can and should live in a state of constant joy and thankfulness.

In spite of the vigorous arguments that sometimes break out on the subject, it seems to me it doesn’t really matter whether you regard Adam as an actual historical figure or as a character in a parable. The staggering love God showed in Jesus, and the overwhelming gift of new life he has given to us through that sacrifice, those are things we can rejoice in, no matter how we understand the opening chapters of Genesis.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you that although humankind has always lived selfish and angry lives, you have acted in Jesus to rescue us from the burden of our own sins, and to provide us with an opportunity for new life in your eternal kingdom. By your Spirit, move us and empower us to share that good news with anyone who will listen. Amen.

Grace and Peace,