This morning as we continue our study in the book of Romans, we are going to read some very familiar phrases from chapter 5. In fact, a lot of Romans is familiar if you spent any time in church. It is one of the most loved, most used, and I think, most mis-used books in the whole Bible. When we read it, we are often not just reading the words on the page, but what everyone else has ever told us about these words. One of the hardest things for us to do is to come to something familiar with fresh eyes and open minds, but that's what I'd like for us to try to do this morning. So take a moment to clear your thoughts, expect the unexpected, and "let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings Romans 5:1-11, 18-19 (NIV)
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also boast in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from wrath through him! For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation….
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification of life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
I'd like to start this morning with an explanation of why Jesus died on the cross: "God would like to be in relationship with humans and dwell together with us forever in heaven. But human sin does not allow for this since God is holy and cannot associate with anyone corrupted by sin. It is impossible for humans to achieve the sinless perfection necessary, and because God is just, he must punish us for our sins. God, however, provides a solution. God the Father sends his Son to earth to suffer the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Since Jesus has paid the penalty for us, God can regard us as not guilty. If we believe that we are sinners deserving of hell, but that Jesus died in our place, then we can be in relationship with God and go to heaven."
Now I want to ask you some questions. They aren't trick questions at all. I'm not trying to stump you. I'm just curious. How many of you have heard this before, either in church or you've just gleaned it from what you've heard about Christianity? How many of you think that is a biblical explanation? How many of you would say that's roughly what you believe? Would anyone say that some or all of that explanation makes you uncomfortable? How many of you would feel comfortable in a one-on-one conversation giving a different explanation of how Jesus saves us?
I think all of you realize that explanation I read was not from the Bible. Those weren't Bible verses; that was a summary explanation put together by a theologian. We have theological statements from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, from the medieval period, we have Martin Luther in the 1500s. So how long do you think it took someone to come up with that explanation? When and where and by whom do you think it was written? That explanation was written by a white, male, university professor in 1873 in New Jersey. A theologian named Charles Hodge. That explanation, that almost everyone in this room assumes is the ONLY way explain how Jesus saves us is only 150 years old, and it is distinctly American. It is rooted in the assumption that there are universal moral laws and that guilt and innocence are the primary categories for evaluating people's connection to God. Do you believe that?
If that explanation doesn't work for you, how about this one? God has a high status and we have a low status. God is the lord of the manor who is obligated to provide for us and protect us, and we are God's tenants who owe him loyalty, honor, and tribute. But by our actions we have so offended God's honor that we cannot possibly make it up to him. We must pay for the damages and offer compensation beyond that. Thankfully Jesus, who is like us but also has a status as high as God's, has offered to satisfy the debt of honor that we owe to God. If we ask him he will use his status on our behalf and we will be restored to God. That's from a man named Anselm who lived in Europe, around the year 1000, in the time of lords and vassals and knights, when everything was about status and honor. Do you believe that?
How about this one? Humanity is a group of travelers who have been captured by the Devil and are now his slaves. But we can be freed if someone pays our ransom. Jesus ransoms himself in our place and we are released. But the devil can't hold Jesus and so ultimately the devil loses both his slaves and his ransom. That's one of the earliest explanations, from a few hundred years after Jesus died, in the area of the Mediterranean, when it was common for people be captured or to wind up as slaves for other economic reasons. Do you believe that?
If you're like me, you don't quite believe any of these, although probably elements from each of them resonate with you. And the reason I'm sharing these explanations with you this morning is to help us all remember that our salvation is bigger and more mysterious and more powerful than we can adequately express. There is actually not one clear, precise logical explanation in the New Testament of HOW Jesus saves us. But there are at least five separate metaphors that different New Testament authors use to describe salvation.
The men who wrote these explanations, Charles Hodge, and Anselm, and Irenaeus and Origen, they were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were doing what New Testament authors did, what Paul did in Romans 5. They were reading their Bibles and then they were looking at the world they lived in and saying, "What does this mean? How can I explain the saving grace of God for my place and my time?" And you know what? We are called to do the same thing. We have to look carefully at our own lives and at the world around, to see what the big issues are and to use those as metaphors to explain how God rescues us.
If we simply repeat what has been said in the past, or if we read texts like Romans 5 through someone else's lens, we might miss the point. If we read "we have peace with God" and we think that means God was ever not at peace with us, we distort God's unconditional love. If we read, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" and we think that means Jesus took the "death penalty" for us, we turn God's desire for restoration into a much uglier desire for simple punishment.
So what are some of the big principles as we might describe them now? To begin with, 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. And yet, Humanity has a fatal flaw. Not just as individuals, but all of us together. In ways big and small, we feel in ourselves and we see all around us that we are missing out on our essential goodness. The Christian shorthand for that is sin.
We are not able fix sin by ourselves, no matter how hard we try to cover it up or make up for it. But God fixes sin 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. That's grace.
That fix is done once for everyone for all time, and we experience it personally by trusting that it's true. That's what faith is. It's simply trust that God's grace through Christ has taken care of sin. And finally, When we trust it, we live differently. We do justice, we love, mercy and we 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.
And that is what we commemorate and celebrate when we come to the table. Through our liturgy, we reenact that whole sequence of goodness, sin, grace, faith, and restoration. This ritual of confessing, receiving pardon, eating and drinking, means something different for each of us, and that's OK! This table is the symbol that we can all gather around. Through the testimony of our ancestors we continue to proclaim this is the joyful feast of the people of God where people all ages, races, genders, abilities in every type of body, we call come from the north and south, from the east and the west, and gather here around Christ's body at the table.