Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 16, 2019
Romans 5:1-5 Commentary
Trinity Sunday can be one of the most intimidating days on which to proclaim God’s Word. It’s not just that while Christians profess that it’s a biblical truth, the Bible never actually uses the term “Trinity.” It’s not even just that the Trinity is notoriously difficult to even begin to explain.
It’s also that if you’re anything like me you worry at least a bit that you’re going to say something heretical about the Trinity. We worry that we’ll sound if not entirely Arian, then at least close enough to get us into trouble with people who write volumes as thick as our fists about the Trinity.
In the western Church, Christians profess, in the words of the Athanasian Creed, “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.” While it’s utterly orthodox, it’s not the kind of phrase that’s likely to get teenagers’ pulses racing or seize the attention of religious “seekers.”
Yet once a year the RCL invites those who follow it to humbly dip our toes into Trinitarianism’s waters. Year C’s Epistolary Lesson’s “beach” is Romans 5:1-5. While those waters may seem a bit murky to even the most orthodox and experienced heralds of God’s good news, at least they’re “warm” in the sense that they comfort those who hear as well as proclaim this Sunday’s Lesson.
Romans 5, after all, speaks of a kind of peace for which our world desperately long. Of course, it’s a peace that’s hard to define. Yet it’s also a kind of peace that may be even harder to achieve than to define. Maybe, however, that’s at least partly because we sometimes start to work for peace in the wrong place.
We sometimes first think of the deep need for peace in places like the Korean Peninsula and Middle East. Or we may quickly think of the need for peaceful relationships between people of various races, or between countries’ leaders and their citizens.
On top of all that, there’s also an absence of peace within some of our families or circles of friends. We think of the need to work for peace among neighbors as well as co-workers. But, of course, some of us also know about a lack of peace we experience within ourselves. Some of us feel guilty, angry or disappointed with ourselves or dissatisfied with our jobs, relationships or health.
There’s so much brokenness that we sometimes first focus on working for peace in those places that most obviously need it. But what if that means we’re, to use a medical metaphor, attacking the symptoms rather than the disease? Of course, because God cares about them we too care about those symptoms of alienation. God longs to bring peace to creation, relationships and individuals. Yet by first landing on those places, we skip over the necessary first step on the sometimes-long route to genuine peace.
Paul’s diagnosis of the cause of our most basic lack of peace is very blunt. In Romans 5 verses 6 and following, after all, he describes those to whom he writes as “ungodly” and “sinners.” While we see the symptoms of such unrighteousness in countless places, Paul insists that enmity really begins with our relationship with God. After all, while God creates us to be in so many ways like God, we make ourselves God’s “enemies.”
Of course, the step from making ourselves God’s enemies to becoming other and creation’s enemies is a very short one. God’s enemies, after all, don’t naturally view or treat anything or anyone the way God does.
Some of God’s beloved people have been Christians for such a long tome that we can’t remember a time when we felt like God’s enemies. Yet every time you have to fight temptation, you get the sense that not all is yet completely right within you.
We may no longer think of ourselves as “sinners.” Yet it’s sometimes equally hard to think of ourselves as “saints.” Such imperfection, insists Paul, is our natural state of being. You and I naturally turn our backs, not just on creation and each other, but also on God.
We usually assume both aggrieved parties contribute at least something to the relational messes we find ourselves in. In the case of the brokenness between God and us, however, Paul insists the blame falls totally on us. After all, God creates us for a loving relationship with God, as well as each other and God’s world. God also fully equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to be faithful and obedient. We, however, make ourselves God’s enemies by sinning against not just God, but also other people and the creation.
But, says Paul in verse 1, we now “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God has made himself our loving Father. God has graciously adopted God’s enemies and turned us into God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters. God has, in other words, created the shalom for which God created us, but our first parents and all of their descendants rejected.
In fact, while God calls us to be peacemakers, we don’t have to do anything to make peace between God and us. God has already done all the heavy lifting by sending Jesus Christ to live, die and rise again from the dead for us. We simply receive the peace God makes with us through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet perhaps even more graciously, God made that peace with us “when we were still powerless [to make things right with God]” (6). “When we were God’s enemies,” the apostle goes on in verse 10, “we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
So God didn’t wait for you and me to take even one faltering step toward God or clean up even one square inch of ourselves before turning us into God’s children. God, in fact, didn’t even wait for us to start thinking about becoming godly before moving toward you and me in Jesus Christ. Paul even insists God somehow graciously moved toward us in Jesus Christ while we were still God’s enemies.
Of course, Paul is talking not just about individuals but also about the whole human race in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. He’s basically saying, “Even while humanity remained bogged down in the mess it had made that it is sin, Christ died for it.” Even while, in other words, its sin left the human race God’s enemy, God came to us in Christ Jesus.
We naturally try to fix the mess we’ve made with God on our own. However, we profess we’ve made such a mess of things with God that we simply can’t fix it. In fact, our efforts to fix things just make things in some ways worse. So if God were to wait for the human race to make peace with God, we’d remain God’s enemies forever.
Thank God, then, that God made peace with us through our Lord Jesus Christ. That, in turn, frees us to work for peace in places where it’s also desperately needed. Peace with God frees us to make peacemaking one of our highest priorities. Because here’s a dirty little secret the evil one doesn’t want us to learn: as long as we refuse to make peace with other people, we’ll never fully enjoy the peace with God that God gives us with God.
Yet we naturally expect those who have hurt us to make the first move to reconcile with us. If you hurt me, I naturally expect you to show me you’re sorry before I’ll ever even begin to forgive you. In other words, it’s the “sinners” we expect to somehow make themselves acceptable to comparative saints like us. Our text, however, reminds us that had God waited for us to tell God we’re sorry, we’d still be on a one-way road to eternal separation from God. If the Lord had waited for us to make the first move, we’d still be moving away from, not toward the Lord.
Thanks be to God, then, that while we were still hurting God, God moved toward us in Jesus Christ. God took the first and last, as well as every step toward us to reconcile us to God. That knowledge frees us to take the first, last and every step in between to work for reconciliation with those who have been alienated from us.
Of course, broken relationships (as well as people) often hurt, disappoint and frustrate us so much that we naturally pull away from them. Yet those who follow Jesus relentlessly move toward those from whom we’re alienated.
The Holy Spirit equips us to work for peace by working to at least make some kind of contact with people from whom we’re estranged. Where victims of some kind of abuse try to make peace, they must set appropriate boundaries. Yet they relentlessly work for peace within those contexts.
So on this first Sunday after Pentecost those who proclaim Romans 5 can invite all who long for peace with God, other people and the creation to celebrate the peace that God has already made between God and us. Then we can also send each other out, equipped by the Spirit to imitate God by working for peace with those from whom we’re estranged.
Former American President Jimmy Carter helped lead “Operation Uphold Democracy,” a UN inspired mission to persuade Haiti’s temporary military leadership to step aside in favor of the democratically elected President. Yet in the book, Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush, Hentrick Herzberg writes, “He did it, but then talked about it way too much …
“The same bullheadedness and perhaps overwhelming arrogance that misled Jimmy Carter into going on TV after he got back from Haiti and raining all over his own parade were just the flip side of the qualities of perseverance and self-confidence that enabled him to come up with an agreement in the first place.
“If Carter weren’t the kind of guy who can go on ‘Larry King Live’ and offend everybody who wants to give him a break, then he probably wouldn’t be the kind of guy who can keep the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House on hold while he goes ahead and changes their policies for them – all for their own good, of course.” Herzberg goes on to characterize Carter as “a ruthless peacemaker (my italics). A Patton for peace. He does what it takes even if scorn follows.”
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