Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Romans 3:21-31

As we continue through the book of Romans, we find ourselves nearing the end of the first section, where we see the culmination of Paul’s argument about the guilt of all humanity, but also a shift into the next stage of the argument beginning in chapter 4, where he demonstrates that what we need most is to respond to God’s promises fulfilled in Christ by faith, believing in those promises. Both of these things are pointing back to the thesis of Romans, 1:16-17, where we are told that in the gospel  the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

The righteousness of God. We saw in the first two chapters how this revelation of God’s righteousness has a negative aspect, that of revealing our sin and failure to keep the law. Chapter 1 spoke of the general plight of all humanity, who can see the nature of God in creation but reject it. In chapter 2, we were told that the Jews also are not immune to this sickness of sin that results in death, but that despite the promises made to God to them, by their disobedience they too are in the same boat as the rest of us. But this, of course raises a difficult question for a Jew of that time: is God, then, truly righteous? He promised to make us his own, and now he rejects us?

Chapter 3 helps us see another aspect of the argument of Romans, which is a vindication of God, a demonstration that he is indeed righteous, and that is because he is indeed faithful. Chapter 3 begins by Paul asking whether there was an advantage to being Jewish. The answer is, yes! They received God’s promises, and God spoke to them and acted on their behalf in history! They had, we might say, a significant advantage when it came to exercising faith in God, a handicap advantage like one gets in golf. God never stopped being righteous and loving to them; they were the ones who chose, like the rest of us, to reject him. And that is because, as he sums up in vss. 9-11, “What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.”

Thus, Paul sums up our situation. But, if the main point in the early chapters of Romans is the universality of sin, the rest of the letter is dedicated to the universality of God’s gospel offered to us, to all people, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, mental ability, or strength. The main point of Romans is not that of people’s hopelessness in the power of sin, but rather that the righteousness of God is available to all, and we receive it by faith.

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”

Whereas Paul began the letter by talking about how we must keep the law in order for relationship with God to be restored, he here makes clear that all of that was to demonstrate that our following of the law was and is impossible, due to the power of sin over us. Humanity, whether Jews having received the law directly, or Gentiles, with the law written on their hearts due to being made in God’s image, all fail the test, and cannot be what we were made to be in our own power. But despite our faithlessness, God is always faithful, and out of the abundant love of the triune God, who never changes and whose promises always stand, we can be justified, made right with God, through faith, by which (we will learn), we are united to Christ and are therefore by that true and mysterious union righteous as he is righteous, despite ourselves.

It reminded me this week of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Those were some of my favorite movies growing up, and I was remembering one of my favorite parts, the sequence of booby traps he must pass to get to the holy grail. First there is a trap where one must drop to their knees as a penitent man, lest the massive saws take off their head. The second, there are tiles crossing a chasm. If one steps on the wrong ones, you fall through to your death, but if you step on the letters that spell out the name of God, you can walk across. The last, a step of faith, stepping out into what appears a deep abyss, but there is a hidden path right in front of you. In each case, the point is that it isn’t some human effort or cleverness that wins the day, no law to follow, but to come before God humbly (kneeling), looking to Jesus by whose name we are saved, and finally continuing to step out in faith, despite appearances telling us that it might doom us. 

It is a wonderful analogy for what we see here in Romans 3 leading into the rest of the letter: We are sinners, and thus come to God penitent; but we look to Jesus, into whom we are baptized and by whom we are justified; and by and through our faith God receives us as his own, blesses us with his grace, and will raise us up on the last day. 

None of us can boast because of our works, whether we fulfill a ritual properly, or we act in an ethical manner, or because we give a lot of money to charity. None of us can boast in our heritage wherever we come from, or our nationality. None of us can boast because we are polite, pleasant, middle class people who just want law and order, and none of us can boast because we are poor and needy. None of us can boast because we are self-proclaimed patriots, and none of us can boast because we affect an apathy towards the political, carefully remaining aloof from it. None of us can boast even in our faith, because it is simply the only rational response to the God who has extended to us grace, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, God and Man, who resolves the problem of sin by his sacrifice. 

None of us can boast in any aspect of our lives, whether inherited or earned, because at the end of the day, we were all sinners without hope, but despite the unfaithfulness of humanity, God’s faithfulness is unwavering, and the righteousness of God is available to all, and it is received by faith. God guarantees his love of us, and shows us that to be truly human is to be in Jesus Christ. All we have to do is believe him, and all of our sins and the specter of death itself have no power over us. Let us believe, Amen.

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