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Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Chapters 5-8 of Romans lays out the meaning of the momentous act of God in saving us through the work of Jesus Christ, countering the despondent message of chapters 1-3 that we are all, every human, truly subject to sin and death and without hope, with the message that God’s grace is greater than our worst sin, and that he bestows it freely. This small chunk today gives us the key, a focused summary of what the chapters ahead will unfold, and what they rely on:
God has reconciled us to himself through the work of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is the meaning of justification, that core concept that Paul is so concerned with throughout the letter: justification is reconciliation with God through the Cross.
The text is structured so as to emphasize this key point. This intro to the following chapters of 1-11 is a chiasm, basically a paralleled structure designed to emphasize a central point: vss. 1-2 are about justification, which in vs. 11 is termed reconciliation; vss. 2-5 are about hope for a future glory, and vss. 9-10 hope for a future salvation; and right smack in the center of these parallel concepts is 6-8, Christ’s death as the expression of God’s love that secures all the rest: “6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Reconciliation with God, hope for our future, to be saved from the twisted sickness of sin and the grim visage of death; all secured by Christ on the Cross.
Let us treat these concepts individually to feel the impact of this introduction to the sweeping Gospel that Paul will give us. First, we have peace. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We generally think of peace in the wrong way, unfortunately. We think of peace as the cessation of conflict, the thing we earn by ending war. But Paul, Pharisee as he once was, a Jew to beat all Jews, would know the Hebrew meaning of what we translate “peace”: the Jewish word shalom. Shalom is not about cessation, a negative concept, but a thoroughly positive and active concept. Shalom is the abundant blessing of God that brings joy, contentment, and abundance. It is not a negation, but the true substance of things. Justification is reconciliation with God, which brings peace, which is the very reality of all goodness being given to us, of which all earthly joys are but an echo.
I love Home Alone as a Christmas movie. It hits all the right beats, fulfills every adolescent child’s fantasy of physically brutalizing home invaders, and at its heart, hits at the meaning of family. There is a character in the film, an old man who is constantly salting the icy Chicago sidewalks, who the main character Kevin befriends. Teenagers spread rumors about the old man, that he murdered people and hid the bodies. What Kevin finds, however, is that the old man is just that: A sweet old man who is trying to serve his neighborhood by keeping the sidewalks clear. But the old man is sad, because he has a son who he had a fight with some years prior, and they haven’t spoken since. It is a rifted relationship, torn asunder. Kevin’s advice is, “just talk to him.” We find out at the end of the film that the old man does, and we see him enjoying Christmas with his son and granddaughter, because he reached out to resolve the relationship, to reconcile. Now, God is perfect and it is we who have broken the relationship, but we still see the power of this I hope, the power of reconciliation. We, in the wrong, are spoken to by God, in Christ, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and are invited to be reconciled, to be at peace, and to be able to rejoice together as God intended. Also the priest in Les Miserable.
Second, the joy and fulfillment of reconciliation with God breeds hope in us. Hope is not wishful thinking, as I said last week, it is far more sure than that. Hope is to be understood as the result of faith in Christ whose Spirit dwells in us, and having received the justification that is true reconciliation with God. Hope is, we might say, “joyful confidence” of something, and so according to vs. 2, we are joyfully confident that we will share in the glory of God. And because we are confident of this, we can withstand the sufferings of the world, as vss. 3-5 put it. Suffering is not good, but as people reconciled to God and joyfully confident of sharing in God’s glory when our salvation is complete, our suffering is put in perspective and can, through faith, become a thing of benefit to us.
And third, reconciliation, peace, and hope, are all secured by the work of Christ upon the Cross. That is the central, defining act that broke the power of sin and death. Jesus Christ’s work of taking on death so that we might live is the basis of our reconciliation with God, because the final end of our sickness has been healed, our deaths swallowed up in the death of Christ which could never hold him but had to release him on Easter.
Paul uses an illustration we all need to consider: we might die for one good person, our spouse, a saint, a comrade-in-arms. But while we were not “good people,” while we were sinners, while we deserved nought but death, Jesus Christ died for us.
That is love, God’s love. It is not a thing earned, or gained by manipulation, or bought; it is truly an act of pure love that God extends to us his grace, received by faith, which justifies us, meaning reconciles us to God by the work of Christ and applied by the indwelling Holy Spirit. God’s love is greater than any human sin, and is greater even than any human love.
Two things to hold and meditate on as you go into your weeks:
1) The very nature of God is love, and so despite the corrupting sickness of sin, God’s nature is to extend grace, to make possible even by his own self-sacrifice in Christ our salvation, of which justification is only a part. God loves us, and we must simply receive that love in order to then live and walk in his grace.
2) This is a work for us that spans time itself. Our future of sharing in the glory of God is secure, because of the work of Christ in the past, which we receive by faith and the power of the Spirit in the present. God has been, is, and will be at work to bring all of us to himself, to join us to the glory of God, to see God’s face. And for us, right now, that is a source of great joy and comfort. No war, or economic slump, or social collapse, or really any circumstance at all, can steal from us the peace that comes with knowing that God is for us, and proven it by guaranteeing our place in the new creation by the work of Jesus on the Cross, nor can they steal from us the joyful confidence that is hope, that we will one day share. May our faith in the God who is love, and in the work of his Son, through the power of his Spirit, bring us peace and joy now and evermore, Amen.
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