Romans 3:28-30; 5:1-11
Last week, we were introduced to Paul’s letter to the Romans and why he was writing to the Christian communities in Rome. And we also talked about how the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. We talked about what salvation looks like today to people who are inside the church and to those outside the church, and how it can look like different things to different people. And we talked about how we have that power of God for salvation to everyone, no matter what salvation looks like; that power that comes from faith in Jesus, or the faithfulness of Jesus, depending on how you translate the Greek.
Today we’re skipping over a few chapters of Romans to get to our main text, but we do need to trace Paul’s argument in the chapters we missed in order to understand more fully what Paul is telling us in today’s reading. And for that, I want to go back to a little section of last week’s reading that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on. Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. When we read through the stories about Paul in the book of Acts, and when we read through the rest of Paul’s letters as well as Romans, we find this concern about how this new movement that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord will relate to those who are not Jewish. Something that we modern Christians tend to forget is that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. And so, the big discussion among first century Christians revolved around Gentiles, who Paul calls “Greeks” in this letter—those people who were not Jewish and who found that Jesus was calling them to follow him. The questions went something like this: Do Gentiles who believe in Jesus need to become Jewish first? If yes, then that means the men have to be circumcised and both men and women need to follow the dietary regulations laid out in the book of Leviticus. If Gentiles do not need to first become Jewish, how can a new Christian community form if Gentiles eat things that Jewish people are not allowed to eat? A lot of community, even today, forms around sharing a meal, so this was a really important question. And finally, what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans, is that there was simply prejudice going on: Jewish people in the community looking down their noses at the Gentiles because they were not God’s chosen people, they did not follow the laws laid down by God through Moses, and the Jewish Christians were asking how in the world God’s grace could be poured out on the Gentiles when the Gentiles did not follow God’s laws.
And so, Paul makes the argument, beginning at the end of Romans 1, that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, is equally sinful. He starts out by naming behaviors that Jewish people condemn Gentiles for: specifically, idolatry and actions that result from worshiping idols. And just as the Jewish Christians in the group would be nodding their heads in righteous condemnation of those “wicked Gentiles,” Paul springs the trap: don’t condemn the Gentiles when you do the very same things. His argument here reminds me of when Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Look at your own behavior, Paul says, and see whether or not you, too, violate the law that God has decreed. In the end, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Gentile: all means all. And this is where the first part of today’s reading comes in: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Now, Paul is not advocating that the Jewish Christians stop being Jewish and no longer follow the dietary laws and the law that the men should be circumcised. Rather, he is saying that you can keep your identity as Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, but since all have sinned, keeping those laws is not what makes you right with God. Instead, Jesus Christ is who makes you right with God.
In chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of his proposition that we are made right with God through faith and not through following the law. Finally, then, we come to chapter 5, which is the major part of the reading that we have heard today. Paul says that because we are made right with God through Jesus Christ, we have access to God’s grace, and this is what we can boast about. We don’t boast about who we are, whether we are Jewish Christians who have kept all of the commandments since our youth or whether we are Gentiles who are brand new to this whole Christian thing. Our pedigrees and our family trees don’t matter. Rather, we boast in “our hope of sharing the glory of God”. God’s grace has fallen on each one of us equally through our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves you just as much as God loves me. And this is the love that we as Christians want to share with the world.
Then, Paul says something that many of us want to argue with: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I don’t know about you, but when I was suffering from having my wisdom teeth taken out two years ago, I would have greatly preferred not having to suffer—I have enough character and hope already, God, thank you very much. How much more do those who are suffering more serious illnesses or more serious difficulties in their lives protest this idea! We want to believe that all God wants is for us to be happy and wealthy and all we have to do is follow these steps and trust in God to get there. And there are plenty of televangelists and others to tell us that. But as we can see from these verses in Romans, and in other places in the Bible, such thinking is not what the Bible teaches. We are not to seek out suffering, but in this world, suffering happens, whether it’s illness or poverty or persecution or something else. What Paul is saying here is that God is present with us and loves us even through all of that, and God can use that experience for good in our lives and the lives of others.
And then Paul gets to the heart of the matter, in some of his most beautiful verses in Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And again he says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And a third time he says, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Think of that: while we were weak; while we were sinners; while we were enemies. We have been all of those things. And God loves us in spite of all of that. God loves us so much, that God goes to the length of sending Jesus, God’s Son, to earth to die for us. And we didn’t have to do anything. God wants a relationship with us so badly and God loves us so much that Jesus Christ died for us when there was nothing good to be found about us. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that worth praising God for? Isn’t that worth getting over our foolish fears and sharing with the people around us?
This is what Paul is implying by using this language: if God loved us while we were weak, sinners, and God’s enemies, then when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, this is not a pious ideal. This is something that we are to work very hard at doing, because this is the same thing that God did for us. This should cause us to examine ourselves and our lives and to ask, “Who are my enemies?” Now, most of us think that we are good, nice people, and that we don’t have enemies at all. But, what about that family member that we see sitting at the dinner table with us at Thanksgiving, the one that we go to great lengths to avoid talking to in order not to get into a big fight and ruin everyone’s holiday? What about that person who spread rumors about us that were untrue and nearly cost us a job? This did happen to me once, many years ago now. And when I told my pastor about it and how angry I was, the first thing that he said to me was, “Let’s pray for that person right now.” That’s what loving your enemies looks like, and no matter how good and nice a person we think we are, we all have enemies. And God’s love for us is so radical that God commands us to love those enemies and to pray for them, no matter how hard it might be. Because that is how God loves us.
As I was studying for this sermon, one podcast commented that this kind of enemy love is God’s “militant NO to the terms of hatred in this world”. I love that. This week, as we go about our daily lives, I want us to be mindful of our emotions. When we watch the news and we are stirred with hatred of someone because of a bad situation going on, let’s stop for a moment, mute the TV or turn off the radio, and pray for that person who we are in the midst of hating. Let’s remind ourselves that God could have hated us for what we had done, too, but that instead God chose to love us so much that God sent Jesus Christ to die for us: while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. And if you encounter yourself hating someone during a different activity this week—it doesn’t have to be listening to the news—do the same thing. Stop what you’re doing and pray for that person. It’s a good discipline, and it is very hard to do at first—trust me, it was very hard for me to pray for that person who spread rumors about me all those years ago! But I wonder if it might get easier for us as we practice it more. And just maybe, we might be able to lessen the tide of hatred in this world—just a drop. So, let’s give it a try, and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us, leading us and encouraging us as we go. Amen.