Hollywood Lessons

Romans 6:1b-11

“God will forgive me.  That’s his job.”

That’s a quote from a 19th century German writer and poet named Heinrich Heine. I wish I had found it in the bible instead of Wikipedia. I wish it were a biblical truth that I could pull out anytime I needed to justify my choice to sin. Because, in the back of my mind, I think I just might have adopted old Heinrich’s theology.

After all, as a good Protestant, I know that I am saved, not by my works, but by Gods’ grace. You see, I grew up in the church and so always knew that if I confess my sins, God will forgive. We just read in our study of James this week that “we all stumble in many ways.”

So there have been times in my life when I’ve just jumped in feet first to sin. And I enjoyed it! And although I had never heard of Heinrich Heine, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “God will forgive me.  That’s his job.”

So why not sin? If we are save by God’s grace and not by our works, why not just go for it. Because God will forgive and we’ll get to heaven anyway? Paul answers that in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Romans. Paul gives us the theology to answer that. And, oddly enough, Hollywood gives us two illustrations.

Let’s start with the theology. Paul was in Corinth when he wrote this letter. And you might remember how he said the church in Corinth, When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

You see, for Paul, it’s all about the cross. The Cross, the Cross, the Cross. Nothing else mattered.

So now when he writes to the church in Rome, he spends the first five chapters telling them about how Christ’s death on the cross justifies them in God’s eyes. You’re justified. Justified: that means “just as if….I never sinned.”

In chapter five, Paul tells that when Christ died on the cross, he paid the penalty for our sin. So now we might have peace with God. The Cross frees us from the penalty of sin.

Now, in chapter 6, Paul writes about how the Cross frees us from the power of sin. The cross frees us from the penalty of sin. But it did more. The cross frees us from the power of sin over our lives. Here’s how.

When you were baptized, a lot of remarkable things happened that set you up for a great future. One of them is that you died. Paul says, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death.” He goes on to say, We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever has died is freed from sin.”

On May 2, 2011, an event occurred which made the world just a little bit safer for us. That’s the day the President Obama went on TV to announce to the world the Osama bin Laden had been killed by our military forces.

In the second Presidential debate in 2008, Obama had stated the killing bin Laden had to be our “biggest national security priority.”   That’s because as long as bin Laden was alive, he would be working to embolden more terrorism attacks. But once he was dead, he couldn’t continue his mischief. Dead terrorists no longer terrorize. They are free from terror.

Likewise, dead men no longer sin. Once you die, you no longer sin. You are free of sin. The dead no longer rebel against God. But if you have to die to be free of the power of sin, how does that help the living? If only we could die and then come back to life.

And that is exactly what happens in baptism. At baptism, our old self – the self that is enslaved to sin – joined in Christ’s death on the cross. It was crucified. So we are dead to the POWER of sin over our lives. Sin no longer enslaves us.

Consider what it means to be a slave to sin. Let me give you an illustration from a movie that made Brad Pitt a household name. In 1994, the Geffen Company released the movie called, Interview with the Vampire. It was based on Anne Rice’s best selling novel. It’s a horror picture and I’m not recommending it to you. But there is one scene in the book (don’t know if it made it into the movie) that I found very helpful. Because it so graphically illustrates what Paul means by “the old self” that is enslaved to sin and must be put to death.

The story is about the life of a vampire named Louie and his vampire friends. They feed on human blood.  (It’s what vampires do.) They seek their prey at night. After they indulge themselves in a meal, their victims die and turn into more vampires.

However, in one scene from the book, we find ourselves in a vampire’s hidden chamber. There’s a prison cell built into one of the walls. The cell is just big enough to cage a young man in the prime of his youth. He lies in his cell in a listless state. His waxy skin and glassy eyes are evidence of his constant feverish condition.

You see, the Vampire has kept him in this kind of pantry for his occasional snacking. He takes just enough not to kill the boy, but leaves him in a weakened state unable to do anything except lie in his little cage waiting for the vampire’s next visit.

The vampire enters the chamber with a key in hand and opens the cell door. The youth obediently rises, and ambles over to stand before Le Stat. He knows what the vampire wants, and he is powerless to refuse. So he turns his head to one side and bears his neck. When the vampire has enjoyed his fill, the youth shuffles back to his cell a little weaker. He pulls the door closed behind him.

I can think of no more powerful image of “the old self” than that weakened, feverish youth bearing his neck. The Old Self has no power to resist sin. So he yields to sin and that yielding keeps him in a weakened condition.

That is the state of every human being before the Cross. The bible says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin are death.” But when Christ died on the cross, he broke that power of sin over our lives. And when we are baptized, we are crucified with Christ so that our old self dies and is no longer subject to that power. You are free to walk away from the cage.

So why do we keep on sinning? And to answer that, I return to Hollywood again to another movie that was released in 1994. The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

Tim Robbins plays the part of Andy Dufresne – a banker who is wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife. While in prison, he is befriended by Red Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Red Redding is also in for life, but he’s the prison contraband smuggler.  And so, Red smuggles in a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth for Andy.

During his incarceration, Andy applies his business skills to help a guard save some taxes on an inheritance. Seeing his business acumen, the Warden puts Andy to work helping him to conceal bribes that he is receiving. Over the years, Andy uses his position to launder the Warden’s money using a fictitious name and bank account.

All the while, Andy tells Red about a little Mexican coastal town that he hopes to live in one day. This from a man sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. For Andy, hope springs eternal.

An opportunity comes up to exonerate Andy of his wife’s murder. A new prisoner transfers in from another prison. He tells Andy of someone he knew at the former prison that bragged about murdering Andy’s wife.

Andy tells the warden, but the Warden wants to keep Andy around to help him with his crooked dealings. So the Warden has the new prisoner killed and Andy thrown into solitary confinement for two months. Andy gets out of solitary and is returned to his cell.

The next day Andy is gone. He has escaped through a tunnel that he has spent the past 19 years digging out of his cell with the rock hammer that Red smuggled in for him. You see, the escape tunnel was hidden by the poster on his wall.

Andy accesses all of the money that he had laundered for the Warden all those years and takes off for Mexico. A year later, Red is paroled after serving 40 years.

Now here is the important part. The authorities set Red up in a little hotel room and get him a job as a bagger at a grocery store. Red dutifully goes to work and returns to the cell of a hotel room every night.

He is free to start a new life. He could go out and enjoy himself, meet new friends. But he’s uncomfortable with this new freedom that he has. So he just comes home every night.

At the grocery store he goes to his supervisor to ask permission to use the bathroom. That’s what he had to do in prison. His supervisor assures him that he doesn’t need to ask permission.

Red is still living in prison. He’s paid his debt to society and he has been freed. But after 40 years of prison life, he has a prisoner’s mentality.

After 40 years, he had grown comfortable with confinement. He is not comfortable living as a free man. He’s not quite sure how to do it. So he lives as a prisoner. He goes to work every day and returns to his little room every night in the same, secure pattern.

Meanwhile, Andy has bought himself a sailboat and is living the good life down in Mexico. He lives as a free man. Even in prison, he lived with a free man’s mentality – working for nineteen years to dig his escape tunnel. The cells bars and a corrupt prison warden couldn’t keep him caged in.

Here’s why some might continue to sin, even though they are no longer enslaved by sin. Many people are still living as though they are still enslaved. They are free to live the abundant life. They are free to say no to sin and yes to freedom.

But they have grown comfortable with confinement. They continue to live within the patterns and limits that were placed on the Old Man. They’ve felt secure in the same routine.

But Christ offers them an alternative. Apostle Paul writes: So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God I Christ Jesus.”

Jesus has done his part. He’s freed us from the enslavement to sin. He’s freed us to choose. But we will keep living in prison until we choose to live free.

Paul tells the Romans: Consider yourselves “dead to sin, alive to Christ.” Consider yourselves dead to living confined by the Old Man’s way of thinking, Consider yourselves “dead to the old patterns of sin, alive to the new possibilities in Christ.”

Consider yourselves dead to sin. Dead to the gossip mill that grinds people down. And consider yourself alive to Christ. So you can offer affirmation that builds up.

Consider yourselves dead to sin. Dead that grudge against your brother or sister who hurt you.

And consider yourself alive to Christ. So you can pray for God’s blessing on that brother or sister.

Consider yourself dead to sin. Dead to that addiction. And alive to Christ. So you can call a friend and offer them a word of encouragement.

Living free in Christ is radically different than prison living. In means changing the way we think. It means adopting new patterns of living with one another. That all takes some initiative, some intentionality. And there is always some risk whenever we venture into new territory, isn’t there. Is it worth the risk? Is it worth the initiative?

At the end of the Shawshank Redemption, Andy has left some money buried in a place known only to Red so that Red might have the means to join him in Mexico. But it means Red would have to take some initiative. Red would have to leave the security of the way he’s always lived.

In that last scene, we see Andy in summer clothes working on his sail boat in Mexico at the water’s edge. Andy pauses from his work to look off in the distance. There’s a man walking his way. As the man gets closer, we see a big smile come over Andy’s face. Red has taken the risk for freedom.

“God will forgive me; that’s his job.” That’s the thinking of someone freed from the slavery of sin, but stuck in the pattern of prison living.

God gives us the choice. Choose the Old Man patterns of living that keep us caged. Or take a risk and choose instead to follow where Christ leads. He’s waiting for you at the water’s edge.