Two weeks ago we were camping with our two-year old, Eden. It was a bad parenting decision, but we’ll talk about that another time. We were getting ready for bed, about to put on pajamas, when Eden started running away from the tent. It was pitch black, but we knew that there was a three or four foot bank overlooking a creek on the other side of the tent. Eden was heading straight for the ledge. We started screaming at her, “No. Eden stop.” I tried to reach her, but I couldn’t. Eden fell down the bank and into the water, somehow missing all of the huge river stones. We were lucky that there was no injuries; she was just soaking wet.
The lecture came afterwards: “Why’d you do it?” we said. Her response? “ I don’t know.” Now, that’s not the most satisfying response. I thought she she might say, “Because I want you to have a heart attack before you turn 35.” But you can’t rationalize with toddlers. Instead, the best she could muster was, “I don’t know.” I thought about that and began to wonder if she was telling the truth—that she really didn’t know why she ran away. Do any of us always know why we do the things that we do? Our brains, our hearts, are mysterious organs.
I mean what set off the mass murder in Las Vegas, anyway? We’re desperately searching for some rationale. Surely, some connection to ISIS or another crazy ideology. Maybe he was a left-wing nut who had enough of Trumpism or he was acting out of some racial inequality aggravation. It turns out that we don’t know. Stephen Paddock appears to be a relatively normal besides his wealth. Maybe he had a gambling addiction or an adverse reaction from anxiety medication. We don’t have a reason. And maybe, it’s more terrifying that Stephen Paddock may have had no reason.
At the beginning of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Augstine reminisces about the immaturity of his youth. He recalls this one instance when he and some buddies decided to steal some pears from a neighbor’s orchard. He writes about this memory like an immature high schooler: ‘We took away like an enormous quantity of pears’ and ‘we didn’t even eat them—they tasted terrible and we weren’t hungry. We threw them to the pigs.’ This is like 5th century form of tossing rolls of toilet paper over large, South Georgia oak trees. No one’s trying to create a white Christmas. Augustine was recalling the incident looking for his rationale, but he never found one. He wanted to do something risky, experience the thrill of the theft. He desired forbidden fruit. How are we all so broken?
Augustine called that corruption sin. I’ve noticed that when we usually talk about sin, it’s about particular shortcomings. I aimed for the bullseye, but I have a lousy shot. I promised fidelity to my wife, but I had an affair. I want to be content with my possessions, but I am so covetous that I stole that sweater from Belk. We miss the mark by doing, and not doing, all these little, bitty things. But Augustine realized that there is this deeper, more pervasive kind of sin, like with a capital “S.” We steal the pears, and that’s wrong, but there’s a force that drives us to the tree in the first place. We’re born with this power or a contagion that consumes us the moment we let our our first cry. It’s as if Sin is a disease.
He must have spent time reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. We read from that letter this morning, but listen to how Eugene Peterson translates it like this “I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.” Paul is talking about obeying the Jewish law and sure, he’s exaggerating a bit. We’re not completely useless. It’s not like every bite of the apple is rotten, but it means that you shouldn’t be surprised when the rot slowly spreads throughout the entire fruit. There is a sickness that’s endemic in human beings. It’s not a sin. It’s Sin. The problem is not that you weren’t nice to your neighbor; it’s that you’re actually dead on the inside.
I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain Paul is calling us zombies. Zombies are these creatures that are stripped of everything but the drive for death. They are committed to the fulfillment of one desire: flesh. That’s all they care about. They will walk through a knife, or stumble toward a loaded gun, to get what they want. And once they get it, they go on to the next brain even if it will kill them. Next Sunday, millions of folks will tune in to watch a show called The Walking Dead. But what they might not consciously realize is that the show is about us. The theological substance of the show The Walking Dead is that it tells us that we have the contagion. There is a virus that is already inside of us—you’re already a zombie. Aliens and monsters arrive from the outside to destroy. The power of The Walking Dead that the disease is already in you.
It’s like a metaphor right out of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Our “flesh,” or our “body of death,” as Paul says, steals our freedom. We’re slaves to the things that bring decay. Isn’t that language out of a zombie film? There’s this death drive at the core of our existence and patterns of harmful behavior that multiplies and spreads like a disease.
It affects all of us. Every sentence of this letter is directed to the good, holy followers of the Jewish Law or the followers of Christ. It’s not directed to the scum of the earth, but people like us. We’re the ones who know what to do, but we can’t do it. I need to get a hold on my temper, but that meditation habit just won’t catch. I meant to do that morning devotion, but the kids are screaming and I really just need five minutes to watch GMA. I wish I could choose not to be depressed, but ‘trying harder’ doesn’t help. Each year, thousands of New Year’s Resolutions are washed down the drain by February. The other side is that we know what we shouldn’t do, but do it anyway. This shopping habit has gotten out of hand, but I can buy this with one click on Amazon and there’s a disconnect between my brain and my finger. I need to cut back on the booze because it makes me feel terrible, but this day has been so exhausting. Addicts know this best: we can’t “just say no,” we’re too weak. We aren’t even free to choose the things that bring us life. There’s a dead guy within all of us who is trying to escape and pursue all of the wrong things.
I Imagine the hackneyed scenario of the “wealthy businessman” who is pursuing wealth at all costs and nothing will stop him. He looks around and knows that it’s damaging his family and his relationships, he’s deeply unhappy, and he knows that he’ll never have free time to enjoy all that he has accrued. The pursuit of wealth is eating him alive, but he can’t stop. We need another power that can resist and control the disease. Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Like an good zombie film, there is an antidote. Your disease doesn’t have to be terminal. Most zombie movies end with hope, some sort of olive branch, that tells us new creation is on the way. The enemies band together and create friendships that will outlast their impending doom. The boy who was taught to distrust all strangers, finds a new family that will care for him. There’s helicopters are heard chopping in the distance or the roaring of tanks are approaching. People are no longer afraid of being alive. It’s like Gospel.
There’s a cure. Paul will go on to remark that sin entered the world through one man, Adam, but through one man it was put to death. “Just as one person got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and rescued us from it (5:18).” The cure is Jesus. The power of the Holy Spirit is breathing the presence of Jesus into our hearts until the disease is reversed. One theologian says that God became a man that our humanity might be bestowed with divinity. Our broken humanity was put to death, that it might rise again restored with new life.
This should change the way you think about salvation. It’s not about going to heaven; salvation is healing. In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, healing and salvation is the same word: sozo. God is healing a sin sick world into a place of love, grace, and peace. If we go back to the start of the story, we have hope because there’s not only this original sin, but there is this original blessing. We weren’t created to be zombies; we were created in the image of God. Jesus comes to transform the depraved parts of our hearts and the structures of our world back to this original blessing. But we have to create room for the breath of God, and open up the dark spots in our hearts to receive light. Don’t conform to the pattern of death, but allow Jesus to bring the transformation of your hearts and minds. Remember the original blessing. God is bringing it all back to where we started.
John Wesley, our founder, would later say, “Know your disease. Know your cure.” The disease is that death is always on the horizon and some chaos is always bound to break out in our lives. The danger of life seems too great, the fear is unsurmountable, and our hearts are too diseased. Yet, Jesus comes to us when we’re locked in our basements, or held captive by our fears and he says, “Peace be with you. Don’t be afraid.” Wesley (and Paul, too) had this optimism of grace that God wouldn’t just forgive us; God would heal us and make us look like Jesus. We’ve not come today to feel guilt about the ways we are inundated with disease. We’ve come today to be set free.
*Drawing from Greg Garrett; Peter Rollins heavily throughout this sermon