We are often tempted to discount the power of the individual, yet history is full of examples of solitary individuals who have changed the world for better or for worse. Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Oppenheimer, Gorbachev, Einstein, Ghandi, Mother Teressa are just a few examples. For good or for ill, each one of these people changed the face of the world in some way. They were solitary people who made a difference.
In our text for this morning, St. Paul gives us the names of two additional individuals who had a profound effect upon humanity. And the effect each one of these men had was more than all the rest put together! What these two men did changed everything. And just like those l named only a moment ago, it wasn’t always for the better. Case in point: man #1 – Adam. St. Paul describes the effect of this one man on the world when he wrote: (12) ”Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” and again: (17) “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” and again: (18) “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men.” How could such a thing be? How could one man have the power to condemn all men? Can the Bible really be saying that we are being held accountable for what someone else did so many thousands of years ago? To find the answer we must look to the beginning.
Our Old Testament lesson for this morning shows us where the trouble all began. You heard the conversation yourself, only a few short minutes ago. Eve and the devil debating the will of God and the nature of man. Sadly, Adam and Eve gave into temptation and listened to the words of the serpent. They gave in to temptation and disobeyed the words of their God. And that’s when everything changed. In that moment, when Adam set his mind to take a bite of that fruit, even before its forbidden flesh had touched his lips, everything changed for all time. We call it the fall because there is no other way to describe the totality of the change.
Those who had once walked with their God in the cool of the evening now tried to run and hide from Him in their shame, and their fear. How painfully obvious to God it must have been that these were no longer the people He had known. They were utterly ruined. The Adam and Eve He had known and loved were dead – just as God said must happen. All that was left in their place were these shameless, stupid, belligerent creatures.
In the moment of that original sin Adam became a man full of fear and doubt, full of anger and mistrust, a man on a mission to shift the blame, and avoid responsibility. And what’s even more sad perhaps, is that things have not changed for their offspring since that day. In fact, you could say that in many ways things have gotten worse … because we have whole-heartedly followed in his footsteps.
Therefore, as the ancient holy fathers so correctly said, this original sin is the very tinder of sin, the law of the flesh, the law of the members, the weakness of our nature, the tyrant, the original sickness, etc. For it is like a sick man whose mortal illness is not only the loss of health of one of his members, but it is, in addition to the lack of health in all his members, the weakness of all of his senses and powers, culminating even in his disdain for those things which are healthful and in his desire for those things which make him sick.1
Indeed, people have had thousands of years to come up with new and different ways of trying to hide from God, or make up better and more convincing excuses, or practice our games for passing responsibility. And we Christians are not always any better. Take a moment to consider many of the most prevalent attitudes in our world today and you will see the truth of it. The claim that there is no God, or that no one religion can be true – to the exclusion of all others. The lie that everything is relative, including what is right and wrong. The self-righteous attitude that we are all a part of God, or that if God was all loving and all powerful, then there shouldn’t be pain or suffering or doubt in the world – as if these can only be His responsibility. The anger that God would count the sins of one man against every other. These and so many similar attitudes and arguments are the fig leaves of our generation – that by which we try to hide from the reality of God. Hide from the reality of our situation. Hide from the reality of our own sin and guilt.
But in spending so much time tying to avoid the problem, people also miss the solution. A solution that doesn’t lie in tying to hide from responsibility. You see, even more than one man was able to ruin everything, another man was able to make up for it. Adam brought sin and death and ruination. But Jesus brought life, and forgiveness and acquittal. Paul described it in this way: (17) ”much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” and again: (18) “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” and one more time: (19) “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Rather than pretending there simply was no problem, God met it face-on, in Jesus. Seeing that we would never own up to our sin but instead keep on tying to run, He sent someone who would stand His ground and take responsibility for all sin. He put a substitute into the game. And so Jesus was born of a woman, grew in wisdom and maturity, came to the Jordan to be baptized. Through these actions He set himself up as our substitute under the Law of God.
And having become our substitute, what was the first thing Jesus did? He faced the temptations of the devil in the wilderness. He went right to the root of the problem, as we see recorded in our Gospel lesson for today. Forty days in the wilderness with no food, the devil constantly trying to tempt Jesus into sin with the very same temptations that made Adam fall. And Jesus, like Adam had only the Word of God to put up against the word of satan. Yet where Adam failed, Jesus obeyed. He passed the test. He saw the empty promises for what they were. He remained sinless. He set himself firmly upon the path that would lead to his suffering and death and resurrection. And in that moment, when the devil left frustrated in his evil plans, things changed once again. Jesus became what men had first been. He reclaimed the position that Adam had fallen from.
And it is a position that he has passed on to each one of us. Even more so than everyone who is born of the line of Adam is born corrupted and fallen, all those born of the line of Jesus are made whole and sinless and righteous. Birth into Adam’s line is biological. Birth into Jesus’ line is spiritual. It is done through Water and the Word. In Baptism Christ is made our personal substitute. In Baptism we are tied forever to Jesus’ obedience, suffering, death and resurrection. In Baptism we are given new life … Christ’s life. And this, in turn gives each one of us the power to follow where Jesus first trod. We are given the ability to resist the temptations that would normally ensnare us.
But it won’t be easy. We still live a life torn between two men. On the one hand is Adam and the sin and death he has stained us all with. On the other hand is Jesus and the true life and righteousness He won for us. But as St. Paul wrote: (15) ”much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” The life we now have in Christ is far greater than what was given to us in Adam. As St Chrysostom once declared: Sin and Grace are not equal, nor are death and life, nor the devil and God, but there is boundless space between them! … [There is a] superabundance of grace in Christ (not just medicine to cure the wound but health, comeliness, honour, glory and dignities for transcending our natural state.
(16) “the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” The power of Adam to condemn has been swallowed up in the power of Jesus to forgive. In Christ Jesus we are given faith in God’s Word, both as a weapon against the devil and his temptations; but also as a refuge for those times when fall like our father Adam, no matter how often that might be. And that power of Jesus and His forgiveness also gives us the power to follow in obedience. In Jesus Christ, there is now the ability for every single individual, for you and for me, to change this world for the better – one person at a time … one life at a time.
1 Martin Luther, vol. 25, Luther’s Works, Vol. 25 : Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1g72).