I’ve heard that, with the recent virus spike, people are afraid to go to nail salons, hair stylists, waxing centers, tanning places, even gyms…, which is to say, it’s about to get ugly out there. …It’s a pandemic joke, so I have to wait two weeks to see if anybody gets it.
Seriously, though, I do hope you’re putting up with all this with serenity, knowing that God will get us through; and with prayer, grace and kindness; and even with a sense of humor. I’ve said before: masks and social distance are an odd way to love your neighbor, but that’s what you’re doing.
Keep it up.
As for our sermon text, Paul is dealing with the age old problem of how to get from here to there. In pandemic terms, we’re all wondering: how do we get from six-foot apart lines to the packed like sardines lines we never knew we could miss?
We know the answer, it’s time and a vaccine.
In 1961, President Kennedy famously challenged the nation to get from earth to the moon. He gave us ten years, but it only took eight thanks to brave astronauts and amazing engineers.
However, the only “How do we get there?” question that Paul cared about was “How do we get across the gap between humanity and God?” – a gap that, as far as Paul was concerned, is also the gap between death and life. If you go to Rome and visit The Sistine Chapel, its ceiling fresco implies Paul’s answer. Michelangelo shows the gift of life about to be given, but the artist also makes it clear that GOD is the giver; Adam literally can not even lift a finger to help.
Paul says: God gave us life by the act of creation, and gives us new life (eternal life) by the love seen in the work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a gift we don’t deserve, but simply have to receive by repenting (otherwise we won’t know we NEED the gift) and faith (without which, we haven’t really ACCEPTED the gift).
Paul is writing this to the earliest Roman Christians. Most of them were probably Jewish inhabitants of Rome who had been exposed to Christianity while visiting Jerusalem – perhaps even on the Day of Pentecost when the church was first started. But others soon joined them, and what they all likely had in common was: they’d spent their lives attempting to bridge the gap, but sin and mortality always got in the way.
Now, some of the folks in that early congregation, especially the Jews, surely once believed that the key to bridging the gap was the law of Moses, the commandments, the Torah.
Probably there were others who thought that being good citizens of the empire would please the gods (including the emperor), gods who would grant them something in exchange for their worship.
Then as now, some of them undoubtedly tried to convince themselves there is no God: no reason for morality and no hope for immortality.
And, because it was the classical world, I expect still others thought that they could reach the divine through philosophical investigation and speculation: THINK your way toward the gods.
But none of it worked.
Like Paul, at some point they took an honest look in the mirror and said, “Sinner that I am, who will rescue me from the bondage of death?” (Romans 7:24)
Then, they heard the Gospel and it rang true. They believed! What we could not do for ourselves, God has done for us.
As Paul put it in our reading, “We have been made righteous through His faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through Him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory” (Rom. 5:1-2). Because God has enfolded us in grace, we are able to “stand,” holding firm even in times of distress and difficulty. We can’t achieve this standing with God; we can only receive it.
But aside from peace and a healthy relationship with God, what else does this divine grace get us? Curiously, Paul says one thing it does NOT get us is guaranteed prosperity. Sometimes, it even gets us into trouble. Yet even in times of trouble, there is gracious fruit. Before grace, suffering and trouble produced nothing but anguish. Now they produce endurance that gives the fruit of character, and character produces hope. This “character” is not due to our efforts, but rather to our standing with God (which, to repeat, is a loving gift, undeserved grace).
That was the main point of Paul’s theology, which he was sharing in order to introduce himself to Christians he’d never met but Christians he assumed were enough like him that they’d struggled vainly to get to God and were delighted to learn that God’s got this.
Christians resonated to that in the first century, and twenty-first century Christians do as well.
After all, many of us modern types tried things that didn’t work. For instance, we tried to codify morality, assuming: if we got the rules right, then we’d be alright.
But we found out most of us lack the motivation to live by the rules.
Then we tried various ways of tricking people into being good.
Some people tried threats. “If you don’t straighten up and fly right, there will be hell to pay. One day you’ll regret you didn’t do the right thing. God is a first class accountant, constantly keeping score, and when your failures to live righteously outweigh your moral successes, the gavel comes down. You are declared guilty.
…This line of thinking was only a comfort to people who thought themselves innocent – which is to say, people who refused to take an honest look in the mirror.
To solve the “God gap” problem, some modern folks created grand religious institutions: fantastically expensive structures to honor a man who owned nothing but the robe on his back. A big motivation for all these beautiful, soaring buildings was for them to serve as a sort of stepping-stone up toward God. The beautiful building is a place where people can come and feel closer to God. Thru music, prayers, praise, sermons, and all those acts of service that the building’s users push each other toward, people can feel lifted above the failures and disappointments that plague human life.
But I think Billy Sunday was the first one to say, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
We laugh, but not much, because we like to think church going makes us special.
Other modern folks will tell you, “If you really want to do something about the God problem, the great gap between your and God then follow these spiritual disciplines. Begin the day with scripture. End the day with prayer. Be faithful in worship attendance, and do a good deed daily.” (Wait, that’s the Boy Scouts, not the church. Anyway…:)
The trouble is, no matter how hard we try, the gap still exists. And the closer we get to Jesus, the more impressed we are by how his thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways. Very often, the more successful we get at following the rules (loving enemies, helping the poor, turning the other cheek), the more aware we become of how often we fall short.
The bottom line is: no peace.
And that’s when Paul comes along with his radically good news.
Listen to what he said to us one more time:
We have been made righteous (v. 1). We – who so often think the wrong thoughts, and do the wrong thing, and take the wrong path – we have been made right.
How have we been made right? Through his faithfulness. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 1). The trouble between us and God has been ended. The struggle and contention between us and God has ended in a great peace treaty, but we didn’t do it, God did.
We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through Him (v. 2). Maybe we hoped church membership was the admission card. Or perhaps we assumed being raised in the proverbial “good Christian home” meant accessibility to God was our inheritance. But no, only the Son has total, complete access to the Father. Paul says the same intimate relationship Jesus had with God has been given to us.
Tony Campolo once described a man he knew who was abandoned by his parents as a baby and lived his first eleven years in a church home for orphans.
When couples came to the orphanage looking for a child, the staff would dress the kids up and present them for inspection. He would smile and look as cute as possible in hopes of being adopted. …He never was.
One day his favorite staff member warned him, “Your 12th birthday’s coming up; not many children get adopted when they become teenagers. So, son, do everything you can to look good for the prospective parents.”
Can you imagine?
He despaired of ever being well-dressed enough, neat enough, cute enough, good enough. One day he was outside playing with the other children when a big car pulled up. A couple got out, and he watched as they talked a long time with the school official who had sadly given him the warning about getting older. Eventually, they stopped talking. The couple came over to him; the woman knelt down and said, “You are just the little boy we always wanted. We’re hoping you’ll come and live with us because we would love to love you.”
“That was really the first day of my life.” the man told Tony.
I think something very much like that is what Paul says happened in Jesus Christ.
We tried to look good, act good, BE good. It didn’t happen. But we were welcomed into the family because God loved us, and God loved us for no reason except that God loved us.
Well, I can’t leave you without noting Paul’s wonderfully outrageous summation of this good news: While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people…God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us (vv. 6, 8).
Could Paul say it any more directly? For whom did Christ die? Who were the main subjects of God’s great recovery operation in Jesus Christ? “Ungodly people.” “Sinners.”
Paul says you or I might die for a really, really good person. But Christ shows his love for us in that he died for only us bad people! …Christ died for sinners.
I’m sure I don’t have to spell out why that’s good news for you and me. …Amen!