Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-11 ESV)
When you go to a new place and need to settle in one of the best things to help with life and living is local knowledge. You want to know about a plumber, a dentist, which form to fill in and when, where to get the best Indian, Turkish or Chinese food – or any other deal, you ask someone. The Air Force provides people to help others settle in – neighbours can do this – work colleagues – we share local knowledge readily in church. We do this because we realise that in this world there are variations in quality of service and that no restaurant says that they make bad food and no medical practitioner specialises in malpractice suits but we don’t necessarily trust the advertising. We want consumer knowledge – and we rely on the fact that we’re considering what we’re told often without a great deal of knowledge of the person telling us! We’re trusting our gut or the association we have that the person telling us the local knowledge isn’t out to serve themselves or do us harm. The more they are like us, the more we will probably trust what they say. So any Lutherans we meet might be that little bit more persuaded that a Lutheran Church is in the area if they meet another Lutheran and so on.
Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome has a quality of local knowledge about it. The issue is religion and the topic is salvation. The Roman world had quite a variety of them and the Jews had quite specific views themselves. Paul once a devout and zealous – would ‘fanatical’ be too strong? – Pharisee now had a very different view for the one he persecuted by attacking his followers – this Jesus – was now proclaimed as the promised Messiah, more than that – God among us in the person of the Son of God – despite the not so small fact that Jesus was crucified. ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith”.’ (Romans 1:16,17 ESV)
What do people want from a religion? I dare say that they want good things now – blessings – help when needed – and a good life after death. Our definition of good is all the positives and successes of life – health, wealth, success, children, safe living, not wanting for anything – and help when those things don’t exist or are threatened. Religions give us things to do to get God on our side to help us. Now remember that Paul is talking about Jesus and life with God but he can’t – he won’t – get away from this crucifixion and therefore he can’t get away from the fact that in the first century his religion looks weak in the supermarket of religions. You’re not going to keep buying your washing powder if it doesn’t clean the clothes. So the only possible value in a weak God – a God on a cross – might be if the followers are strong. If Paul did miracles every day – if the followers of Jesus were ostensibly healthier, richer, and more successful than everyone else – then maybe the crucified Jesus is the answer. But no – Paul faces the bulk of his ministry with charges of weakness himself – persecutions, hardships, trials – and the followers of Jesus might have an individual success or blessing story but they, too, seem more like sheep to be slaughtered; they, too, struggle with sins – the good I want to do I don’t do, etc. What’s the point of your religion, Paul, if it not only looks weak but seems to be ineffectual? Romans is a long explanation about why – on the contrary – Paul is not ashamed of the Gospel.
Our reading today gives us some of the reasons. Having established a right relationship with us through the death of his Son, God has gone from being the Great Unknown – something in our own image but feared deep down – to still a mystery but One who has revealed himself as love and grace and mercy – again look at Jesus – especially on the cross.
Thus we have peace with God – he is not the fearful unknown – and through Jesus by faith we have access to this grace and we can rejoice in the certain future – the glory of God and seeing it and being in it. And now Paul goes back to his ‘I’m not ashamed’ message because he goes on to address Christianity’s critics – and that can include followers of Jesus – who didn’t expect the world to oppress them, or hardships to come, or suffering – but says the nonsense message that Christians can rejoice in suffering (hardly your first response – and it might occur if you have no other option – but surely your first response is to expect your religion to get you out of it!) because suffering produces endurance, endurance character (by the way something prized in the Roman world), and character hope which doesn’t make us ashamed at all because when we look into the future there is our God of love not saying far away ‘Come up to me if you can’ but who has already sent Jesus to rescue us and now sends the Holy Spirit who comes to us with that same love. If we look back to the cross we see love – if we look to the heavenly glory we see love – and if we pause and think of ourselves now – no matter what the circumstance we have God’s love no matter what the world or sin or the devil and his hordes are doing to us. There’s nothing to be ashamed about! But this religion wasn’t produced by humanity to meet our needs but rather has an element of truth to it because this God meets us in the realities of life with local knowledge about any situation we’re in.
This God – the one we’re not ashamed of – doesn’t fit any preconceived ideas we have of the divine or the divine life. Peter had the same problem when Jesus acknowledged himself as the Christ – God’s anointed one – the Messiah and Peter knew what that was about – the coming kingdom – power – all the good things one hopes for – but Jesus spoke of the cross for himself and his followers. I feel sorry for Peter here. What was he supposed to think? Do we honestly think the other 11 weren’t thinking similarly? They rightly didn’t want to go anywhere near a cross – it meant shame and death – and so they most certainly weren’t going to put God and crosses in the same sentence. My hunch is that Peter’s aside to Jesus was a gut wrenching temptation for Jesus – hence his reply. His rebuke of Peter and his teaching are God’s Word to Peter and the disciples for their sakes but also, I think, for Jesus’ sake as he heard the words he said so he was strengthened.
For us still Jesus is always the key. Can’t understand the Old Testament – that’s often about the nature and workings of God? Keep reading until you can make links with Jesus. Don’t like what the New Testament says when it conflicts with what you want to do? Keep wrestling until you meet Jesus. For in Jesus we find the mystery that his life and his death have the purpose of salvation. Again this message – this deed – is for all people – it is a first message for it applies to everyone no matter who they are or their catalogue of sins – God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. That’s the done deal of salvation – reconciled to God – but what about now – today? Well, Christianity isn’t a historical society but a living body – Christ’s body – because Jesus has risen from the dead therefore we can rejoice through each day because God forgives us our sins and blesses us with his presence.
Christianity isn’t a religious product but a relationship that has parameters and is quite personal as well as corporate. It always begins with God – not with us – with God meeting us where we are – and his starting message is love – that is what Jesus and his cross reveals – what Scripture reveals. This relationship grows on us and over the years we discover God’s faithfulness – his mercy – again always the focus is Jesus (words, water, bread and wine) – but the older we are in the faith, the more irrefutable evidence builds that God – even if we don’t understand him – doesn’t abandon us. And that gives us a confidence – or a pattern when our confidence is shaken – to follow Jesus in how we behave – because in terms of our behaviour towards God and others, Jesus has the best ‘local knowledge’ around!
- Romans 5:1 - 11