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  • The Very Reverend Rod MacDonald

Advent 3 2022

For the wages of sin is death.

Probably one of the better known biblical statements in our Christian journey.

Uttered by St Paul in his famous letter to the Romans. He then regrets that 'the flesh is weak' and 'the good I want to, I do not '.

So. a little later he sums it all up. ''wretched man that I am."

I think we have all been there, time and time again, if we genuinely seek to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Before we even start assessing our failures in our love of God !

But while Paul was very much writing for a cosmopolitan society in his letter to the Romans - and writing in one of his most readable modes - yes, we respond to that today too - nevertheless he was still writing to the people of 2000 years ago, in language that was contemporary for its time, but 2000 years old.

We had it first translated into English more than 1,000 years later, and in the case of the KJV of 1602, into a very Protestant world. Where there was a declining opinion of the 'spark of Divinity' or the "image of God" that we are held to carry, especially the one we have in current Christian thought and belief. One noted commentator of the 1500s, Calvin, who still holds sway in some less orthodox parts of the Anglican church - Calvin proposed that 'man' was so far gone, that this original goodness was 'marred' beyond any chance of restoration - it depended on God's grace, even God's pre-selection of us - and not on any particular loving of neighbour or self - our access was a correct, even rigid set of mind beliefs which God justified by his grace. And our salvation was by that faith alone.

(Sadly, part of the religious bloodshed of that immediate post-Reformartion era was based in arguments about the details of that 'faith').

So in more recent Sunday School (at least for our age group here) we learnt principally about the laws of right and wrong, ink spots on your soul everytime you did wrong (knowingly or not), and the need to re-whiten the soul by going to church as often as possible. Our parents and grandparents we might remember, often went twice on a Sunday !

But by that time also orthodox western Christianity started to reflect the understandings of our modern era, and use its language to communicate better.

Charity - often called cold charity is colloquial terms because of the very 'hand out to the deprived that despoil our beautiful land' mentality - charity became translated in more modern bibles as love. The verse ' the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly, he ordered their estate' - got dropped from the well known 'All things bright and beautiful' - I think it was the fourth verse originally.

And theological student for hundreds of years have studied the classics, and in particular, Latin and Greek, to give them both a direct translation of the main original sources and translations of the New Testament writings, but also an understanding of the cultures in which Christianity was born and expanded. Much Anglican theological belief comes from the first 400 years of Christianity , and the study of the writings of the so-called church fathers - like Ambrose and Athanasius - and the ecumenical creeds and Councils - like the creed from Nicea, the Nicene Creed, which we use every Sunday are part of our orthodox anchors.

Paul - an international scholar of the time - used the lingua franca - the common language of merchants in which to write his letters. Yes, in Greek, as befits a scholar of the time, but he chose Koine Greek, not Classical. An international scholar today would be expected to be quite literate in English. For English is the international language largely today - it is the lingua franca of the modern world. So St Paul used this form of colloquial Greek in which to write his letters - to maximise the readership - for Parthian sailors, Medeish merchants, Turkish travellors - and even the sophisticated Romans themselves could understand what he wrote.

It was my privilege to be part of a theological training that insisted on our (written at least) literacy in Koine Greek before ordination. To understand Paul's actual words in their original language and context.

So lets look simply at three words.

Firstly sin. Greek himatia A military word, commonly used in Jesus' day by the Romans occupying Palestine - used particularly by spear throwers, archers, and that deadly Roman weapon, the slingshot operators.

They would regularly say, we have sinned, while at weapon practice. For the word meant "missing the mark". Perhaps they hit the target, generally - but they missed the actual point they aimed for. Jesus' Aramaic translated very well into this Greek word - and of course Paul used it himself for the word we now translate as 'sin'. And everytime an archer or spear thrower or slingshot operator 'sinned' - missed the mark - they would get down on their knees, confess they had missed - perhaps with tears ............. of course not !

They would draw another arrow, or pick up another spear and, based on their last attempt. try again of course.

And the modern Army even has a word for this repetition - called test and adjust !

Lets park that there.

Second word. Repentance. Now you see the Advent theme and the message of John the Baptist in particular.

Koine Greek word. Metanoia

Now this word is for some of the young rev-heads of Grafton. Not the Friday night 'changing lanes group', but the ones looking for a bit of road, followed by short gap into which they can do a drift.

But the Council have put signs up - in universal sign language - No repenting. No Repenting.

In Paul's Greek that is. In our language - NO U-TURN !

For in Greek, in the spoken words of John the Baptist and written words of Paul, repentance means doing a U-Turn, or even better still, turning your back on - the past, or your former habits or way of life in the way that John and Paul use it.

Two different but not unassociated reactions to 'not being where we should be, or want to be'

In a very simple way, the old Chruch traditions come to our help. They talk about venial sins and mortal sins. For me, the first is about those - yes we need to admit as a first step, we have fallen short, but can be addressed generally by 'test and adjust' and sometimes this is best done by a growing maturity as Christians (and NOT JUST good table manners please).

But mortal - that which can kill the soul - is about broken relationships. Thats not just about not doing as well as we could, or ought to - but about some sort of breakdown, significant breakdown in relationship somewhere, often very close to home. These say Paul, we need to turn our back on, and choose a better path. For our assistance, Paul lists some of the sources of this second commandment breakdown - covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossips, slanderers, haughty, boastful and so on. Worth reading the whole of Romans 1.29 ff We would probably add the desire for power or the need to control in todays societies.


In my time as a counsellor and priest, I have consistently found that these sorts of relationship destroying traits actually do more damage, corrode more thoroughly the spiritual and personal well-being of the perpetrator. We may in fact gain temporary power or control, but our wholeness is diminished - day by day.

So its perhaps not surprising in this season of Advent, this season of New Beginnings that we hear John the Baptist and St Paul echo strongly the later words of the Messiah, the Christ in a call for New Beginnings as a church and as individuals. For genuine wholeness - holiness, and not by increased religiosity. The call to test and adjust our thoughts, words, and actions (and that which we have failed to do) by honest acknowledgment and authentic adjustment, and most importantly to turn our back on our back on our more destructive and relationship breaking habits - for life in a different direction.

St Paul has the last words:

For sin came through the flesh, and the wages of sin is death.

But consider yourself alive in Christ Jesus, not through the actions of the flesh, but by the grace of God.

The search for genuine holiness, real wholeness. A New Beginning for Christ Church, this Advent.

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