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First Sunday of Ordinary Time
The extent of human knowledge about the physical universe is astounding. We have delved deep into the basic structures of our universe and how it works. Medical technology can cause a heart to beat without pumping, or allow people to operate on the most complex organ in our bodies, the brain. Scientists have mapped the genome, the basic element in DNA. We have images of distant galaxies, and can see how the universe continues to expand. Theoretical physicists can use current knowledge and mathematics to experiment and identify the existence of quarks, subatomic particles that have not been directly observed, and theorize even smaller sets of stringed particles that tie all creation together. The knowledge we have is marvelous, and far beyond my understanding. Yet it is also incomplete, and there are mysteries of the universe we simply will never know. And while we accept these incredible scientific discoveries, it is all too common to miss the forest for the trees, for all of these are more broadly revealing something else, something we reflexively reject: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
Thus we enter the book of Romans, an expansive and wide-ranging scriptural text of the New Testament that advocates for a scripturally shaped vision of the church and its mission. St. Paul is writing this letter from a town near Corinth, and addressed to the many churches of Rome to prepare them for his coming. There seemed to be the threat of schism in the Roman churches, and so Paul wants to ensure that they receive his gospel, The Gospel, so as to avoid that division and ground them in the faith he received from Christ and confirmed by the other apostles. It is not a comprehensive theological text, but focused on the issues raised by the Roman churches, whatever they may have been. In the process, Paul gives us the grand vision of God’s work of grace, his love and faithfulness, and his plan to renew all Creation.
The thesis of Romans, simply put, is vss. 16-17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
Here we see the two sides of the gospel, the theological and the anthropological. Here we see the universality of God’s grace, and the need to receive it by faith. The rest of this beginning section, which goes all the way through chapter 3, establishes the decrepit state of humanity. “The righteousness of God,” which has been argued over for centuries, I think is best understood as having a relational meaning: it is both talking about God, and about us. The righteousness of God is the act by which God restores people into relationship with himself. But for that to make sense, we must understand what is at stake.
What immediately follows is an explanation of the wrath of God, and of some of the almost inexhaustible ways that humanity rebels against God. The wrath of God is revealed, not because he hates us, but because we reject relationship with him. It is perhaps best to understand wrath as a natural consequence of sin, a choice of ours for death, rather than a simple checked temper; that would be to speak of God in too human a way.
Of course the natural response is to ask, “how am I accountable for that which I did not know?” That is, of course, the point of my opening illustration, and the point of our passage today. The wrath of God is revealed to humanity because, Jew and Greek, man and woman, adult and child, we all can look and see the presence of God in all creation. We bear God’s image, and are able to perceive “his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” John of Damascus from the 8th century put it, “The very creation, by its harmony and ordering, proclaims the majesty of the divine nature.” We can split the atom and send people to the moon, but we can’t see our noses before our faces, that those feats of human power are possible only because of God’s gifts to us, and that God is revealed in each atom, each black hole, each discovery of the human race. And for ignoring that fact, we are all guilty.
We shouldn’t fixate on the specifics of the list of sins Paul states, though it is worth making sure we don’t find ourselves there; our focus, rather, should be on the source of them all. Idolatry. The corruptions of sin, the degradation of human life, and the ultimate end, death, are all predicated on idolatry. “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.”
We are all too ready to choose idolatry, and out of that most basic offense and breaking of relationship to God, comes all the rest. When we make an idol of our careers, or our children, or political strength, or achieving comfort, or whatever dreams for the future we may have…when we make idols of those things, making the pursuit of them prior to the desire to love God, then sin will follow. And it is all too easy, in this age of technology, of mastery over the world, to think it is truly possible to live without the God who is revealed to us.
There is hope, though, because the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, the Jew first and also the Greek.” For the Jews it was the law where God was revealed, for the rest, creation, but idolatry is universal. So, however, is salvation. The righteousness of God is revealed to humanity, laying bare our sin and shame, yes, but also demonstrating that where we are not faithful, God is, and by his promise in Jesus Christ the righteousness of God is the act by which God restores people into relationship with himself. Every idol we create, God demolishes in time. And as we will see every promise he has made will stand true, despite us.
Remember, therefore, two things as we enter Romans, and from this passage in particular:
First, you are an idol-making factory (as Calvin would put it). The temptation to create idols for yourself is never-ending in this life, and idols can never give you what you want. They inevitably lead to destruction.
Second, God is greater than any idol, and he calls you first and foremost to one thing: Faith. ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith,’ we are told. The promise of the gospel is that God is faithful to us and his desire to restore us to him, and to our true humanity. And what we must do is simple: Believe him, trust him, follow him. Your righteousness begins and ends with faith. Thanks be to God, Amen!
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