A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 26, 2019
Romans 3:28-30, 5:1-11
Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered to be his masterpiece, at least of the letters he wrote that we know about. Scholar NT Wright says this about it:
It is “…neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.”
Paul wasn’t writing an abstract statement about how our salvation happens. He was writing a letter to churches he knew, wanting to further instruct them in the new faith. While Paul founded many churches in his travels, Christianity seems to have beat him to Rome, a community that had a sizable Jewish population at the time of Jesus. These Christian communities in Rome would have been comprised of gentiles and Jews.
Today, it would be like people who had been Muslim and people who had been LDS joined our congregation. We would all need to be in conversation about our faith and what it means to be followers of Jesus. We would be coming to the conversation with different experiences of religion, with different vocabularies, and with different traditions and theology.
It’s a challenge to be in community with people who see the world so differently from each other. Paul’s letter to them, and his letter to us, call them to unity in what they do hold in common—the love of God in Jesus.
In Paul’s letters, you can tell what situations he was trying to “correct”, or address, based on what he writes about.
I’ve shared this before, but it never gets old.
From what we heard this morning, it seems that reports had gotten to Paul that in Rome, some people were trying to earn their salvation by their works. Some people were differentiating between people who had come to the faith through Judaism (the ‘circumcised believers’) and through other faiths (the ‘uncircumcised believers’).
Paul’s response to the churches in Rome is that we are all, no matter the journey that brought us to faith, worshiping the one God, the only God. And that God has justified us through the faith of Jesus, and not through whatever works we may do.
For Paul’s writings, here a few things to keep in mind.
God is God of every person and of all creation.
There is only one God.
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has made a saving claim over all humanity.
And the way for us to respond to that claim God is making on our lives is through belief in Jesus Christ. (Thanks to David Bartlett in his commentary on Romans, p. 4).
As Deanna mentioned last week, salvation is the beginning point of our journey, not the end of it. We are free to live as God’s children because the work of justification, of God’s saving claim over humanity, has already been accomplished. Which means, of course, that we don’t accomplish our salvation ourselves, or by our service here on earth. We are beneficiaries of salvation, recipients of grace, not earners of it.
And because that has already been accomplished, according to Paul, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
Last week, Deanna challenged us with this observation:
“We are God’s people when we commit our lives to our Christian Faith. But if that fact doesn’t change us……if it doesn’t light a fire within us…..if it doesn’t draw us ever closer to God…..we have made a false start….or we have not yet stepped out in faith far enough.”
To be justified by faith means that we are free to step out in faith in grateful response to God. When we fill a food pantry at Borah High School, when we go to PRIDE and tell people God loves them, when we speak up and out about injustice, when we care for people, when we visit the sick, when we fill backpacks so local school kids will have school supplies—all of those are ways we step out in response to the gift of grace we have already received.
Has your faith changed you?
Paul uses the word “boast” in a more positive way than you or I would today. Boasting is rarely seen as a good trait, even if we see it plenty as watch the news.
Paul says “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”. One possibility for the root of the word ‘boast’ in Greek is the word for ‘neck’. It’s a holding one’s head high kind of confidence. It is to exult, to glory, to lift up. And for Paul, the main thing we can boast in is what God has done for us. We hold our head up high because, for some inexplicable mystery, God has chosen to be with and for us.
Paul also says we are to boast in our sufferings.
I’m more than happy to listen to people talk about their sufferings. And I’m grateful for the people who listen to me work through mine. But you and I both know that people who boast in their sufferings are insufferable. Think about the ones who hear your story of pain because you have a broken arm, and say, “oh that’s nothing. A flesh wound. One time my leg fell off. Now that really hurt!”
Paul’s not telling us to be that guy, insufferable in our boasting.
Paul is calling us to claim our suffering, and to acknowledge that a life in faith is not a life without pain and challenge.
He says to boast in our suffering,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us…
Suffering isn’t for its own sake. Suffering should point us toward endurance, which points us toward character, which points us toward hope.
To glory in your suffering is to claim our struggles in faith, to not pretend we don’t have challenges. I don’t have any experience in suffering because of my faith, at least not the way Paul did. Sure, I get hate mail threatening violence from people who claim to be ‘pro-life’, and there are online trolls. But that’s not the suffering Paul faced. He was beaten. Thrown in jail. Kicked out of town.
Answering the call of God led him to travel the known world, facing all sorts of trials. It led me to live in Boise and get to work with you. It’s not the same. I don’t know suffering the way Paul did.
I don’t play golf, but I’ve been told that golfers know what it is to suffer.
Most of us probably don’t experience suffering for our faith, and we should be wary of Christians in this country who claim to be facing great persecution. We can worship freely, without interference by the government. The vast majority of people elected to represent us in city, state, and national government claim to be Christian. Our religious holidays are national holidays. Knowing people live by different faiths, different creeds, different values alongside us—that’s also not persecution.
Christians do face real persecution in other parts of the world, often in countries our government is selling weapons to. Christians in the US do not face persecution as Paul did, and we should be mindful we don’t participate in the persecution of others, either with discrimination here or with governmental policies, (which did not begin in this administration).
But we do have sufferings in our lives. We know pain. we know heartbreak. We know loss.
And into those situations, Paul calls us to explore our pain, to investigate it with curious minds open to wonder, open to growth, open to transformation.
I don’t believe God subjects people to suffering so they may learn faith. God is not a bully. I do believe God is with us in our suffering, however, our companion through it, inviting us to transform it into something else.
As I read through this passage, I’m reminded the road to hope is paved with suffering, endurance, character. My faith has been nurtured more in times of trial than in times of ease. And yet, I seem to always want to pave smooth the path so that I don’t get tripped up by the suffering as I journey.
A colleague (thanks, Dean Grier!) this week described the progression from suffering to hope this way.
Suffering = what happens to us.
Endurance = what we do in response.
Character = who we become.
Hope = finally looking outside ourselves, and back toward God.
Hope doesn’t disappoint, because it doesn’t depend on us, but recognizes the work of the Spirit in us.
The final ‘boasting’ Paul mentions in this passage is to boast in God, to put our confidence, and our hope that God is at work in our lives, bringing reconciliation.
Reconciliation is God’s work that brings us closer to God. It’s also the work we do that brings us back to each other. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, ‘if we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other’.
Reconciliation is the hard work of reaching out to each other across our differences and trusting that God can bring us back to each other. The shortest distance between two people is a story. When we know each other’s stories, the things that separate us don’t seem to have the power they used to have.
“Erich Remarque’s book, All Quiet on the Western Front tells of a remarkable encounter between two enemy soldiers during the Second World War. During battle a German soldier took shelter in crater made by artillery shells. Looking around he saw a man wounded, an enemy soldier. He was dying. The German soldier’s heart went out to him. He gave him water from his canteen and listened as the dying man spoke of his wife and children. The German helped him find his wallet and take out pictures of his family to look at one last time.
In that encounter these two men ceased to be enemies. The German had seen the wounded soldier in a new way. Not as an enemy combatant but as a father, a husband, someone who loves and is loved. Someone just like him.”
With whom do you need reconciliation?
God has already reconciled us to God, freeing us to do the work of reconciling with each other. May we hold our heads high and if we boast in anything, may it be that God is on our side and will help us do that work.
(NT Wright quote at: Leander E. Keck and others, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 395)