“The Romance of the Fragment” (Romans 5)

Tragedy happens quickly; restoration takes its time.

The taller and more narrow our pedestal, the greater our chances of falling to the earth in a clamor of dust and ash.  Just ask Adam—a 500-year-old sculpture by Renaissance master Tullio Lombardo.  The sculpture of Adam was on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when it mysteriously crashed to the ground, shattering into literally hundreds of pieces.  Carol Vogel’s 2014 article in The New York Times was—perhaps appropriately—entitled: “Recreating Adam, From Hundreds of Pieces, After the Fall:”

“What followed was more than a decade of painstaking restoration that was unprecedented in the Met’s history. The project took so long there were rumors that the statue was beyond repair….In decades past, museums would have also restored a damaged work of art in a way that got it back on view as quickly as possible. In the case of a massive marble sculpture like Adam, conservators would have resorted to using iron or steel pins that required drilling many of the sculpture’s joints. But such invasive work can be risky, curators said, potentially harming the marble….Nobody at the Met thought that the process would take 12 years. But [the Met’s director] reiterated in a recent interview, that he wanted Adam ‘brought back to a state where only [art insiders] could tell anything had happened.’”

Vogel reports that experts in the field describe such restoration projects as “the cutting edge of art history.”  Restorers speak of “the romance of the fragment,” the re-assembly of damaged pieces to make the artwork whole again.

Yet for us—all of Adam’s true daughters and sons—there can be no “romance of the fragment,” no possible way of assembling our disjointed thoughts into a cohesive whole.  In fact, our every medicine seemingly only causes more illness.  Even in our best moments we are dimly aware that we are broken, beyond repair.  Our attempts to find wholeness through career, through relationships, through sex, through sports, through artistic triumph—even through religious devotion—only magnifies our brokenness, like children gluing pieces of china together in hopes our parents won’t notice the cracks in the dinner plates.

Malcolm Muggeridge—the twentieth century journalist—once remarked that original sin is the doctrine most often denied, yet the one most easily proven.  Just turn on your television set, and your living room will flicker with the evidence of a world where Adam’s legacy may be seen and felt.  Yet the problem is never simply “out there,” out in the world, someone else’s problem.  No; the problem goes deeper.  As a Russian writer once put it, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”

We’re speaking, of course, of the nature of original sin.  When Paul summarized the gospel of the people of Rome, he described it as a glorious exchange.  Or—more specifically—a series of exchanges.

THE FIRST EXCHANGE: ADAM TO US

First, Adam’s rebellion in the garden was passed on to us:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because wall sinned—13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)

We are all the products of a fatal, genetic error.  The early Church called this “original sin,” a doctrine that states that sin is more than just what we do; sin is something we are.  We are “polluted in father and mother,” wrote Origen, a member of the early Church.  If this is true, then we can’t possibly defend ourselves as merely being “born this way,” or the products of heredity and environment.  No; we are guilty by simple virtue of being born.

But, you might object, surely that’s unfair.  In Western societies, we tend to think of responsibility as personal.  If my brother, father, sister, etc. commits a crime, I am not guilty—unless I participate.  So to be condemned for Adam’s sin seems unfair.  But this assumes you haven’t yourself participated in the same kind of rebellion that Adam did—or that even from birth you have a desire for self-indulgence.

Gary Willis says it best:

“We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness.  There is no ‘clean slate’ of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebears….At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as ‘having a past.’  The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, ‘has a past.’”  (Gary Willis, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, p. 384)

THE SECOND EXCHANGE: OUR SIN TO CHRIST

Paul writes:

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And 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. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, 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. (Romans 5:15-17)

The gospel is a glorious exchange, wherein my wickedness—the same “reputation” I earned from Adam—is given to Jesus.  On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for my depravity.  And, in return…

THE THIRD EXCHANGE: CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS TO US

When Christ takes our sin, so too does he impart to us His righteousness:

 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for fall men.19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21)

Christian thinkers have termed this as the doctrine of “imputation,” the process by which each of these exchanges takes place.  The imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we might say, is what puts back together the image that was broken.

And that’s why Luke, in writing his biography of Jesus, would extend Christ’s genealogy all the way back to “Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38).  For Luke, both Adam and Jesus were “sons of God”—though each in their own unique way.  But while the first Adam would result in ruin, the second Adam would bring about restoration.  For the first Adam, what began in a garden resulted in a graveyard.  But for the second Adam, what began in the graveyard would result in a garden.

“The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote Saint Augustine.  And he was right.  If Jesus was broken so that I could be made whole, it liberates me from trying to reassemble the pieces on my own.  I am set free from the “romance of the fragment,” a romance that leads only to codependency and grief.  Instead, I may begin each day with joy, knowing my identity no longer comes from Adam, no longer comes from my career, no longer comes from a shameful past, no longer comes from my need for relationship, for sex, for sports victories—no longer comes externally at all.  Instead, my identity comes from Jesus, whose once-for-all sacrifice undoes the years of grief, and fills in my broken cracks with grace.  And life.  And joy.

 

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One thought on ““The Romance of the Fragment” (Romans 5)

  1. The Apostle Paul packed a lot of theology into some of what he wrote in Romans, but as he keeps making new points it is hard to grasp full any of them.

    Below is from Romans chapter 7:4-21. I feel the need to quote such a huge swath so as to not quote out of context.

    4 So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.
    5 For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.
    6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
    7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”
    8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead.
    9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
    10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
    11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.
    12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
    13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
    14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
    15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
    16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
    17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
    18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
    19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.
    20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
    21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. (Rom 7:4-21 NIV)

    There are two scriptures here that suggest that as far as the law is concerned that we in fact – at least to ourselves – become guilty of sin as we come face to face with God and his teachings. Romans 7:7-13 show that while ignorant of God we don’t have to explain our conduct against his supernatural revelation. Then from Romans 7:14-21 we become face to face with wanting to do good, but find that the sin in us … probably even ingrained in our DNA puts our bodies and programed to sin … but we fight against this by walking in the spirit and other scriptures talk about us letting his word and his spirit and knowledge of him renew our minds and make us God instruments … in effect giving us a new way of thinking.

    I hesitated to write a comment because you did a great job covering what you covered … and I had to start writing in the comment area to see if anything worthwhile would be typed. Serving God is right at the limit of the human capacity … even beyond it … I guess it is only with God’s help that we actually do serve Him correctly.
    “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Phi 2:12-13 NIV)

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