Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 12, 2017
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 Commentary
Considering that we all love gripping courtroom dramas at the movies or on TV, it’s a wonder people don’t find parts of Romans more engaging. When you read Romans 4, for instance, it’s not the least bit difficult in your mind’s eye to picture Paul as an attorney, pacing furiously in a courtroom as he makes his compelling closing argument by mustering all the best evidence he has presented throughout the trial. The prosecution has been trying to make the case that Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is bogus and that salvation comes as a reward for moral adherence to the law. The witnesses have all been called and so now it’s time to wrap it up.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us stipulate that the spiritual forefather whom we have identified as Abraham was declared to have the status of ‘righteous’ before he had ever had a chance to perform a single deed. Let it further be pointed out and considered our Exhibit A that the God who so made that declaration was clearly presenting this status as a gift, which itself was a byproduct of a prior gift presented by this same said Deity in the form of faith.
“By way of analogy, if you get a job working for my law firm and I give you a paycheck at the end of the first two-week pay period, you do not gush over my kindness or regard this money as an out-of-the-blue gift. Indeed, were I to deny you your paycheck, you would have legal cause to file a complaint against me for breach of contract. The mutually agreed upon contract between employer and employee obligates me by the letter of the law to pay you for your work at the agreed-upon sum. It is that simple. You would have no need to thank me for the fulfillment of my legal and contractual obligation.
“But Abraham did not receive from God what God was obligated to give such that Abraham was relieved of all responsibility to say ‘Thank you’ or register no more than the simple completion of the quid pro quo between employer and employee. Abraham regarded his righteous status as a gift that issued in the kind of profound thankfulness that all unexpected gifts elicit.
“Indeed, let us stipulate further that there was nothing contractual in Abraham’s relationship with God in the first place because a contract requires a law to govern that contract but at the time Abraham received his righteous status from God, there was no law in effect. There was no law to break but this implies there was likewise no law to keep. Therefore the transaction carried out between God and Abraham was in the nature of sheer gift and this would remain the case for all who thereafter were declared righteous—this is and has always been a gift even after there did come a time in subsequent history when God revealed laws for how best to live in this world.
“In summation, then, the prosecution has failed to make the case that living aright before God and in a state of righteousness is a law-based reward for moral behavior. In the first place we have established the reception of this righteous state prior to Abraham’s even having had a chance to perform any deed good or bad and in the second place we have established there existed no law at that time that could have rendered this exchange as reward or obligation, leaving the reception of righteousness to be precisely what we claimed it to be at the outset of this trial: a gift of pure grace through the gift of faith that results in a profound gratitude. I humbly rest my case.”
No need to wait for the verdict—Paul has made his case to his Roman Christian friends. And if reading Romans 4 really does come across as about this cut and dried and legal and such, we know that behind all this logical rhetoric from Paul is the passion that burns in his own heart. Paul knows better and more personally than most how salvation comes as a gift from out of a clear blue sky. It happened to him one day on the Road to Damascus.
It’s actually a shame the Lectionary would have us stop at verse 17 because before this passage is ended, Paul brings the Good News of the Gospel home once again by pointing out that this righteousness apart from the law was not just a happy occurrence for Abraham thousands of years ago. No, no. “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” This was never about somebody else’s story but your story and my story and our story. And in that there is profound joy!
This is all finally a miracle, as we can pick up in the final verses of the assigned Lectionary reading where Paul says this is finally resurrection, the bringing of life where there had been only death. The logic of Paul’s argument and of Paul’s case is pretty air tight. But logic can leave one cold. Not so the Gospel that is at the heart of all this! It fills the universe with warmth and light.
In Lent we follow Jesus on that perilous path to his cross. It is a hard road, a dark road. But it leads to a joy and a glory without end. And Paul would use any means at his disposal—from exuberant shouting to well-reasoned arguments in a court of law—to get that message across. We preachers today can but try to catch the fire of this passion!
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In his Romans 4 argument, Paul points out that when you work for a paycheck, your receiving that check is not a gift to elicit joy but an obligation you receive as what is only your due. Of course, sometimes receiving a paycheck can elicit joy when, as a matter of fact, you were not thinking about your job in terms of getting much money for it. When you really were not expecting anything, what you get feels like a gift after all.
In the wonderful comedy film Big a thirteen-year-old boy named Josh Baskin somehow transforms overnight into a 35-year-old adult (played by Tom Hanks). While he waits to figure out a way to transform back into a boy again so he can go back home, he hides out in New York City and takes a job for a toy company in data processing. It never occurs to him, though, that he’d get a paycheck much less a check that—to a thirteen year old—would seem like a small fortune. While his coworker in the next cubicle looks at what he gets with disgust because he thinks his work is worth so much more, Tom Hanks as the boy-turned-adult expresses joyful surprise and glee.
Truth is, we are not surprised by our paychecks but we should be just that blown away by God’s grace. And maybe if we are, lots of other things in life might start feeling like a gift too!
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