The story is told – in the gospel according to the Internet – of a pastor visiting with a new member. The pastor says, “How is your relationship with God?” The new member replies: “There’s not much to tell. I like sinning. God likes forgiving. We get along just fine.”
The story is an adaptation of a few lines of dialogue from the poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, composed by W. H. Auden, who was a British poet in the twentieth century. He wrote For the Time Being in 1942, in the midst of a world at war.
In this part of the poem, King Herod is responding to the news, brought to him by the magi, of an infant King whose birth brings grace and forgiveness. He says: Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”
I like the idea of an admirably arranged world. Don’t you? It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It doesn’t ask too much of me. I can apologize when I have said or done something that causes hurt. I can ask forgiveness, both of the victim and from God. And then I can go about my life. Business as usual. Both God and I get to do what we like doing.
But something is profoundly wrong with such an “admirably arranged” world. Wounds can be forgiven – but that isn’t what heals the torn flesh. Relationships sundered by words shouted in anger don’t magically go back to the way they were before.
This uncomfortable reality isn’t new. It’s not even original. We find it in today’s reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul, who was once observant of the Jewish faith and in fact had a good steady government job persecuting followers of the Jesus way. Paul, who has famously wrestled with himself and his new faith, says this:
“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” And Jesus, in today’s reading from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, reminds his disciples of the crucial difference: Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
This truth is so much more than an “admirable arrangement.” This is the core of who we are as followers of Jesus.
Last week, in the reading from the Romans, we heard Saint Paul remind us that you and I and everyone baptized into Christ was baptized into his death – and his resurrection. As the words of the sacrament of Baptism put it, “You have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with his holy spirit forever.”
You and I are the called-out ones. The ones who have been marked, in a way like no other. By our baptism, we have been immersed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Saint Teresa of Avila put it, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours.” And even knowing that as we do, sometimes we turn away – deliberately or unconsciously. We fall short. We miss the mark, which is the translation of the word for sin. “A falling short of your totality,” says a character in the novel Evensong. “Choosing to live in ways that interfere with the harmony of that totality.”
And that is what Saint Paul – who understands so completely and complexly about falling short of our totalities, about turning away – that is what Saint Paul calls sin. It’s living as less than each of us truly is, less than who you and I are as baptized followers of Jesus. And that’s not just a question of an admirable accommodation, sneaky or open, good or bad, right or wrong, keeping rules or breaking rules. Ultimately, it is life and death – on God’s terms.
Maybe that’s why Paul is so adamant here. Jesus Christ is our way. He is our life. We are a part of him, and he is who we are, and he is who we are invited to reflect to the world. Paul is urging all those who will hear his words to become our true selves, our most Christ-like.
When I was navigating the rocky shoals of adolescence – my parents would probably tell you that I was fifteen for about seven years – the worst that they could do to me was to sit me down and say, “We’re disappointed. You’re better than this.” Just yell at me and get it over with. Right? Nothing hurt more than gazing into the eyes of my parents and seeing the sadness brought on by my choices to be less than. Because they were right. Because they called me to account. Because they reminded me that I was their child – and God’s.
Like a loving parent, Saint Paul is challenging the Romans – whom he has not yet met – and challenging you and me, across the centuries, to examine our life and find ways in which we have denied ourselves the very life we say we want. With every word spoken or held back, with every action taken or refrained from, I have a choice, so do you, so do all of us. And that is the good news.
The grace of God is absolutely real – and it is not a “get out of jail free” card. It is because God’s grace is poured out so abundantly that you and I get to choose.
When King Herod, in Auden’s poem, speaks of the crook, Herod forgets – or chooses to overlook – that the crook is forever sneaking around, hiding in dark places, living in fear of being caught. That is no way to live. That kind of life is a living death, leaving us empty and hollow and impoverished. That is not how God has made any of us.
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, into which we have been baptized, we are liberated from the power of sin. We are free to receive the gift of grace – no sneaking, no hiding, no “admirably arranged” lives.
So what does that look like? Jesus tells us.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward. It doesn’t have to be big. Most of the moments of our lives are pretty small, even fleeting.
Each time that one of us chooses the kind word over the angry one. Each time that we pray for someone who’s had surgery. Each time we donate beans – a can or a case – to people who are hungry. Each time we send a card just to say, “I’m thinking of you.” Each time we find a jigsaw puzzle that someone might enjoy doing and set it out. Each time we have the courage to live in such a way that others see the light of Christ in us and say, “I want that. I want what you have.”
Each time that I choose, that you choose, that we choose to respond to God’s abundant outpouring of grace by making an effort to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world instead of the “admirable accommodation” of King Herod. That’s remembering our baptism. That’s living as God made us to be.
 W.H. Auden. For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. © 1942.
 Gail Godwin. Evensong. © 2006.