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While We Were Still Sinners

A Homily from Romans 5:1-8

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

June 12, 2005 (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s reading from Roman’s begins with “Therefore,” a sign that it’s probably a good idea to have heard what Paul had to say in the previous chapter. The good news is that I preached from that chapter last week. The bad news, of course, it that doesn’t necessarily mean any of us – myself included – remember what is in that chapter.

Last week, Paul reminded us of the centrality of faith to the Christian life. Even if we were to find the perfect combination of rules and behaviors, it would not be enough to draw us closer to God because, as sinful humans, we are incapable of living up to any kind of perfect standard. Faith – trusting that God will do what God has said – however, is righteousness. Trusting in the promises of God draws us into the love of God.

Our epistle lesson for today goes into the central promise on which our faith is built and the ultimate way in which the love of God is revealed. I must confess that I’m a bit hesitant to preach this text because it reads with fairly typical Pauline logic – that is to say it contains several run-on sentences and repeated phrases and is in many ways incomprehensible. Preaching these sorts of texts always makes me feel like a physics professor trying to break down a complicated formula.

This text is about something much more important than silly things like gravity and quantum theory. It is about the central belief that defines Christians as a people of faith. That’s worth taking a little time to unravel, even if it means breaking out the chalkboard and diagramming a few sentences. So let’s look at Paul’s reflections piece by piece and see if we can assemble them in a way that we can understand.

Paul starts with the idea of peace. Peace is something we’ve been hearing a good deal about lately – you always do in a time of war. Some argue that the only way for us to have peace is to flex our military muscle and defeat any potential enemies. Others argue that the only path to peace is through diplomacy. As one commentator points out [Wright NIB] this isn’t really a change from Paul’s time, when the Roman Empire proudly proclaimed that its absolute and unquestioned reign over the Mediterranean world had brought the pax romana to the world.

Paul isn’t talking about that kind of peace. As the Romans eventually learned, military and political peace is never permanent. Someone is always waiting in the wings to step in and threaten the safety of even the most secure nation. Paul, having spoken of the power of faith, says “Therefore we have peace.”

Faith is not only the cornerstone of righteousness, it is the foundation of peace. But what sort of peace is it if it’s not the freedom from violence that governments talk about? Paul says first that it is the peace that comes from being in a place we could not get to on our own.

Faith allows us to stand in the presence of God. To use Paul’s language, through Jesus we have “access” to God. Before the arrival of Jesus only the High Priest of Israel was allowed to stand in the most sacred place in the temple and meet God – and they were only allowed to do so behind a curtain.

Then Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, came and walked among us, touched us, healed us, died for us, and was raised from the dead. From that point forward, anywhere can be the Holy of Holies. Lying in a hospital bed or kneeling by our bed at home or traveling down the highway or holding hands with someone we care about we can stand in the presence of the limitless love of God.

If we are really, really fortunate some of us might find a few people who will love us all our lives and do the best they can for us. Paul reminds us that, through faith in Jesus, every single one of us has access to someone who loves us unconditionally and who shares our pain and our joy with us. The gracious love of God is not just about forgiveness, it is about presence and intimacy. God is with us.

That does not mean, however, that everything will go smoothly in our lives or we’ll get our every wish. Those kinds of promises are for politicians, since there is no chance of them every coming true. Paul promises quite the opposite. He points out that we will suffer. We, children of the living God, beloved of God and protected by God will suffer.

I’ve never liked the logic of that, and I understand the temptation of religions that promise to make everything better or give people power over the universe. It’s much harder to market a religion that includes suffering. But Paul spells out quite clearly here that suffering is part of the Christian experience, and he doesn’t even put it in the fine print. Why, then, have people for thousands of years continued to choose Christianity over a host of competing alternatives all promising all sorts of happy nirvanas?

Because what Christianity offers is the truth. A religion built around a God who suffered and died is not about protection from suffering, it is about hope and resurrection on the other side of suffering. It is not about freedom from pain but rather the strength to endure pain.

If we were to portray our faith as a route to the end of all pain and suffering, then new Christians would leave the Church at the first setback: the first kidney stone or the first layoff or even the first broken heart. Actually, I shouldn’t safe “if”, I should say “when” because many people do leave the Church for just that reason. They can’t see the point in going to church or reading the Bible or praying if they are still going to have hard times.

Paul explains that Christians should be proud of the hard times they experience, because faith and the presence of God changes what it means to have hard times. When I was in the Army one of the duties that we rotated was “Charge of Quarters.” CQ duty lasted all night, without any sleep, and the CQ was the person who was contacted if anything went wrong in the barracks. When I was a Private, I hated that duty. It seemed to last forever, and we weren’t even allowed to watch television. By the time I was a Sergeant, I had seen some of the things that could go wrong in a barracks, and I knew how important CQ duty could be. I still didn’t enjoy staying up all night twiddling my thumbs, but understanding the importance of the job made it bearable.

Paul says that the presence of Christ transforms our experience of suffering in much the same way. I’m not saying that being a Christian means that there will always be a “reason” for our suffering. Sometimes bad things happen for no good reason at all, and sometimes life is just plain miserable. Paul wants to remind us though that our faith and the presence of God makes it possible for us to see beyond the pain of the moment into the hope of eternity.

A really lousy cliché was born out of this text: “suffering builds character.” It comes from the way Paul builds his argument. The Apostle points out that suffering leads to endurance and endurance leads to character and character leads to hope.

What makes the cliché so lousy isn’t its accuracy. In fact, in many ways it is true. What makes the phrase “suffering builds character” so obnoxious is that the only time people trot it out is during those times when I want to slug them for quoting it at me. It may be true that many of the problems I’ve endured in my life have taught me lessons that have made me a better person, but I don’t want to be reminded of that when I’m miserable.

Paul’s job, however, isn’t telling us what we want to hear – it’s telling us the truth; and the truth is that enduring the painful periods we all have to face is a different experience for people of faith. That’s certainly easy for me to say as a pastor living in a nice neighborhood with a healthy family and plenty of food in the refrigerator – so don’t take my word for it.

Paul has a bit more credibility on this issue. His faith was the reason for much of his sufferings. He endured beatings and floggings because he proclaimed the gospel, and yet on the other side of it all he was still able to say that Christians should be proud of their pain.

Personally, I think that’s easier said than done. I know of very few Christians whose faith is so strong that they smile through every adversity and cheerful praise God when they face illness, pain, and loss. Paul may have been able to do it, and a few other genuine saints; but for the rest of us that’s a tall order.

The Bible, however, isn’t simply a collections of stories to make us feel good. It is a standard, a high standard, to help us set goals for how we can be at our best. In this passage, Paul is describing Christians at their best – people who trust that even the worst pain is temporary and that the love of God is forever. Christians at their best are people who find hope on the other side of suffering and peace in the midst of trauma.

Why? What sustains us when we our faith is at its strongest? We are buoyed by the fact that our hope will never disappoint us because ultimately the God who loves us is victorious. Paul explains, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

Paul stops to remind us that most of us would be hard-pressed to give up our lives for a really good person. We might be willing to die to protect a member of our family, or perhaps in certain circumstances we would be willing to risk death for someone whose survival might save many other lives. Very few, if any of us, would die for someone we didn’t like and whom we thought was worthless.

Yet when we had nothing to offer God, God still took on human form and suffered and died for us. Paul sums it up with a concise statement of the gospel: “God proves that we are loved, that God loves us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

When we come face to face with how bad things are, with how bad we can be, with how much we can mess things up, with just how empty our lives can be; when we face ourselves at our very worst; we are still looking at someone that God considers worth dying for. We are still looking at someone that God did die for. We are still looking at someone fully and completely forgiven by God, saved by God, and loved by God.

I can’t promise you that knowing this will always make things easy for you or that it will give meaning when things are at their worst. All I can tell you is that it is true, true for each of us no matter what – we are loved and forgiven by the God who created us. This truth sustained Paul through tortures I cannot begin to imagine, and it has sustained countless others through hardships far beyond what I hope any of us will have to face.

This truth is also the source of real peace. Peace that is so fragile that a single bullet or even a violent word can shatter it is not true peace. It is only when peace is unshakable and permanent, when it cannot be stolen, that peace is real.

Nothing on earth, then, will ever give us real peace. Nothing we can make or buy or fight for is so secure that it cannot be taken away.

That makes us as Christians something of an oddity in the world. Some things that other people take very seriously we don’t take seriously at all. Some things that other people ignore – in particular those things and people that don’t help them – are our priorities. For just as Christ came to us while we were still sinners with nothing to offer, so do we offer hope and healing, strength and mercy, to those who can offer us nothing in return.

Odd folks those real Christians, and sometimes I wonder if I have enough faith to be one of them. The good news is that God had enough faith in me, in each of us, to die that we might have the chance.