This morning we are continuing in our six week series on the book of Romans. Last week we look at parts of chapter 1 and 2 in which we learn that nobody is righteous. I told you that one way I think we can understand the beginning of Romans is that Paul is trying to explain the theology that goes with the experience of being converted. The basic Christian experience of having a transcendent experience of the Risen Jesus, whatever that is for each of us, in that experience we realize that we are not righteous and we are totally righteous at the same time. It's impossible to explain in words because it defies our logic, but when we experience it with God it both makes total sense and sets us totally free. Last week we unpacked the first part about how none of us, no one individual, humanity throughout history, is righteous. Our desire is not in line with our intentions and not carried out in our actions. We have a disconnect. We are not able to live in line with our ancient covenant with God. We have been blessed in order to be a blessing but we miss it over and over again. God is righteous. God keeps the covenant. We are not and we do not. That's just reality and we shouldn't be afraid or ashamed to admit it.
Thankfully, that's not the end of the story. Conversion has two parts. If you are ONLY hearing how you are not righteous, how you don't measure up, you are not hearing the voice of God. When God speaks, you will hear both that you are not righteous and that you are completely righteous and that's what we're going to talk about this morning.
"So let us listen know in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings Romans 3:21-30 (NIV)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
How many of you have ever had an illness that the doctors couldn't quite figure out? Or maybe you have a loved one who has something that baffles the medical community? It's infuriating isn't it? You want to believe that they are compassionate people who are doing their best to help you, and they probably are. But they can't figure out what's wrong. And so what do they do? They treat your symptoms. One medicine to alleviate the migraines. Another to calm your stomach. Something else to help you sleep. And that's OK, but it's not really solving your problem. It's not really addressing the underlying issue.
Many times, when we get to the section of Romans that we just heard, people try to interpret it in a way that addresses the symptoms but fails to treat the underlying issue. And the reason that happens is because we haven't properly diagnosed which is which. We have to decide which is the underlying issue: is it God's wrath or is it sin? And for centuries, many Western Christians have believed that God's wrath is the underlying issue. That's what needs to be addressed. And so people have interpreted this section in particular as explaining how we deal with the wrath of God.
My friends I think that is the wrong diagnosis. And that wrong diagnosis comes from misunderstanding what the problem is. God's wrath is actually not the problem. If we remember what we read last week, then we remember that "God's wrath" is not God's desire to punish us for the bad things we do. God's wrath is simply God letting us go our own way. Our desires and our intentions and our actions are warped, maybe not at their core and not always, but often enough to wreck the world around us. We do not keep covenant with God nor with one another.
God's wrath, God's handing us over to the consequences of our choices, is the result of our sin. It's not a perfect metaphor, but we could say that sin is the underlying injury and wrath is the symptom. So why would we come up with theological medicine that makes it so we don't experience the symptom of wrath but fails to treat the underlying injury of sin?
I know this is thick stuff, but it's so important. If we think that God's wrath means God is mad at us and looking to punish us and we only come up with theology that makes it so God isn't mad at us anymore then we've missed the whole thing! Our God is not like other gods. Our God is not angry. Our God is grieved, brokenhearted. Our God is not looking to punish us; our God is looking to restore us. We don't need to avoid God's anger, we need to find a way to mend what's gone astray in us that is destroying ourselves, our relationships with one another, and our world, and breaking God's heart. The underlying injury is sin. That's what needs to be healed, and God is the one who does the healing.
Remember the message: we are not righteous, and we are totally righteous. That is God's word to us. You want to know what's so sneaky though, is that world's message to us is deceptively similar. The world's message to us is we are not righteous, but we COULD BE totally righteous if we do this certain list of things. Now, that may sound an awful lot like what some of us have heard from our churches in the past. We are not righteous but we could be if we just feel bad enough and accept Jesus into our hearts. We are not righteous but we could be IF we mentally agree to the right doctrines. We could be righteous IF we give enough money. IF we serve on enough committees. If ... if ... IF. Friends, that is exhausting. And that is not the message of the gospel. That is not good news. That's the message that everyone gets what they deserve. That's business as usual.
The gospel, the good news, God's message to us is that as much as we are not righteous, we are also totally righteous. We ARE. RIGHT NOW. Remember "no one is unclean." And finally, when we get to Romans 3, Paul starts explain that theology.
Remember that one big point for Paul is that everyone is the same, both Jews and Gentiles. Those were the big categories for him. And although it's not quite the same, we could substitute ourselves and whoever we think is most different from us. Whoever you think has something wrong with them that's going to disqualify them from receiving grace, you're wrong. We're all the same. We all experience the same unrighteousness and we are all saved by the same grace.
So let's walk through it: verse 23: If you were raised in a certain kind of church, you were raised on this verse. All have sinned, both Jews and Gentiles, or whatever your categories are, everyone has missed the mark (archery term), and thus all fall short of the glory of God; we lack it. We miss out on it.
Now what some of you may not know is that these ancient Greek manuscripts don't have any capital letters or any punctuation. So all of the sentence structure that we find has been inferred by interpreters. Which is fine. But I want you to know that because sometimes changing where a sentence ends can change the meaning in subtle but important ways.
Everyone misses the target and misses out on God's glory and—verse 24— everyone is already made righteous, without having earned it, by God's grace and favor and blessing, through the deliverance that is in Christ Jesus.
Now verse 25: This Jesus is the one whom God purposed beforehand to be ... what? What is Jesus designed to be?
Some of your Bibles will say "sacrifice of atonement," which is a reference to the ancient Hebrew system of sacrifices. Some of your Bibles will say "propitiation," which is a theological concept about soothing God's anger. The Greek word that is actually there is a word picture. I think now Paul would put an emoji there. Verse 25 says that God had a purpose for Jesus to be the "lid of the ark of the covenant." That's what the word means. Which is even less clear to us!
The lid of the ark of the covenant was known as the mercy seat. It was the place where the presence of God showed up on earth. It was where the priest would sprinkle the blood that would purify the people from the effects of sin that broke the relationships of community. And what happened at the mercy seat was NOT for one individual person; it was for everyone in the community. Jesus is the mercy seat, the place where the underlying injury of sin is healed and where everything is restored.
All of this comes together in verse 28 which says, "We conclude that everyone is made righteous by faith, by trust, without following the rules." Everyone. Jews, Gentiles, Christians, Muslims, axe murderers, pastors, politicians, and addicts. Everyone is made righteous, everyone is restored to the community of God's people, everyone is empowered to live in the covenant, like we really are blessed to be a blessing. And it happens by trusting that it has happened, and not by anything that we do to earn it or deserve it.
Now this is the point where people as me one of two questions, that are basically the same thing. It's either, "What about Hitler or what about hell?" It's the question, "OK that sounds nice but Pastor Beth don't you actually think that people deserve what they get?" How could someone that we see as so evil be saved like we are? And don't you think bad people get punished? Here's what I have to say about that.
It's not free for us unless it's free for everyone. Either it's free or it's not. And if it's not, it's not good news. It's the same thing the world is saying: work hard and follow the rules and maybe you'll get rewarded if you worked hard enough, but you'll never really know how hard is hard enough. I'm not interested in that.
And as for hell? Well we've talked about this before. You may disagree with me. But in 1 Corinthians 3 Paul says that at the day of judgment, the works of our lives will be put in the refining fire to see what they're made of—the works, not us. In that judgment moment, people always survive, even if their works turn out to be worthless. So let's run Hitler through that scenario: at the day of judgment, all of what he tried to build, everything that he spent his life doing, it all goes into a refining fire and after all the evil burns up, there's nothing else left. And in that moment he experiences what it is like to be left with nothing but ashes. Could there be anything more painful and more restorative, and restoration is always God's goal, than seeing all of our selfish, ego-centric efforts shown for what they really are and destroyed? You wouldn't need hell after that. More punishment wouldn't produce anything better than what happened right there.
Now this is a lot to process, I know. And I think the biggest challenge is that much of the images are so far outside our context. Which is why we have to not just say what Paul said, but do what he did. Paul took the message of Jesus and put it into a cultural package that people could understand. And if we insist that everyone has to learn about ancient Judaism before they can understand what Jesus did for us, we are going to waste a lot of time and alienate a lot of people.
So what is essential? What do we really need to know? These are things that, I think, will translate across cultures:
1. Everyone is created in God's image, created for goodness and to live in harmony with self, others, creation and God. We must always remember to start here.
2. Humanity has a fatal flaw. It manifests a little differently in every person, but we all know that we are missing out on our essential goodness. It's not just that we do bad things sometimes. Those are little manifestations of a deeper injury. We experience a sense of disconnection from ourselves and others and from God.
3. We are not able to heal that injury ourselves. We're just not, despite our best efforts. We can't work hard enough to fix it.
4. God heals it through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God does for us what we can't do for ourselves. And God does this simply out of love, not because we earn it.
5. We are only able to live in that reality if we first trust that it's true. We can't prove it, nobody else can prove it to us. We just trust that God's love has done it.
6. When we trust it, we begin to live like it's true. We begin to do justice, to love, mercy and to walk humbly with God. We discover that life is meaningful even though it's still really hard. We find lasting joy and we heal the world. All through the grace that comes to us as a free gift. Amen.