Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2020
Romans 5:1-11 Commentary
While the kind of peace about which Paul writes in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may seem hard to define, it may be even harder to achieve. Perhaps, however, that’s at least partly because we sometimes start to work for peace in the wrong places.
We sometimes first think of the lack of peace in places like the Korean Peninsula and somewhere in the Middle East. Or we may quickly think of the need to work for peaceful relationships between black and white people, or employers and employees, or between leaders and their constituents.
Yet God’s adopted sons and daughters also recognize there’s also an absence of peace within some of our families or circles of friends. We may think too of the need to work for peace between neighbors as well as among co-workers.
But, of course, some of God’s beloved people also know about a personal lack of peace. Some of us feel guilty, angry or disappointed with ourselves. Or we may be dissatisfied with other people, our jobs, relationships or health. Or we may be deeply unsettled by news of the spread of virulent viruses.
There’s so much brokenness that we sometimes first focus on working for peace in those places that most obviously need it so badly. But what if that means we’re, to use a medical metaphor, attacking the symptoms rather than the disease?
Of course, God cares about symptoms of alienation. As a result, God’s adopted sons and daughters care about them too. God longs to bring peace to creation, relationships and individuals. Yet by first landing on those broken places, God’s people skip over the first step on the sometimes-long and steep route to genuine peace.
Paul’s diagnosis of humanity’s most basic lack of peace is blunt. He describes both those who proclaim Romans 5 and those who hear us as “ungodly,” “sinners” and “enemies.” Yet while we see the symptoms of that lack of righteousness in countless places, Paul insists that any enmity really begins with our naturally broken relationship with God.
Of course, some of God’s dearly beloved people have been Christians for such a long time that we can’t remember ever being God’s enemies. What’s more, God’s Holy Spirit has been working in many of God’s adopted children for so long that we’re not nearly as “ungodly” as we might be or some are.
Yet even those who proclaim Romans 5 sense that we’re quite not as godly as we’d like others or ourselves to think. Every time we have to fight temptation, we get the sense that not all is yet completely right within us. We may no longer think of ourselves as “sinners.” Yet it’s sometimes hard to think of ourselves as “saints.”
Such imperfection, insists Paul in our text, is our natural state of being. Even God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally turn our backs, not just on creation and each other, but also on God.
Of course, we usually assume both aggrieved parties contribute at least something to the relational messes in which we find ourselves. In the case of the brokenness between God and God’s people, however, we confess the blame falls completely on us. It’s all our fault. After all, God creates us for a loving relationship with himself, as well as each other and God’s world. God also fully equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to be faithfully 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 turned us from God’s enemies into God’s beloved sons and daughters.
In fact, while God calls us to be peacemakers, God’s beloved children don’t have to do anything to make peace between God and us. We simply receive the peace God makes with us through our 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). “While we were still sinners,” Paul insists in verse 8, “Christ died for us.” “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 God’s dearly beloved people to take even one faltering step toward God before graciously turning God’s face toward us. God didn’t wait for us to clean up even one square centimeter of ourselves before moving to adopt us as God’s children.
Paul even at least even implies that God somehow graciously moved toward us in Jesus Christ long before any of us were even born. In fact, the Scriptures suggest God chose to adopt us as God’s sons and daughters before anything but God even existed.
Of course, Paul isn’t just talking about individuals in this Epistolary Lesson. He’s also talking about the whole human race. The apostle is 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 graciously came to us in Christ Jesus.
Yet what’s true about humanity in general is also true about individuals that include both Romans 5’s proclaimers and hearers. Even its most eloquent proclaimers sense that were it up to us, God’s people would just continue on our merry way away from God as well as each other. What’s more, we naturally try to fix the mess we’ve made with God on our own.
However, Jesus’ followers 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 with just make things in some ways worse. So if God were to wait for God’s dearly beloved people to make peace with God, we’d remain God’s enemies forever.
Thank God, then, that God made peace with God’s adopted sons and daughters through our Lord Jesus Christ. That, in turn, frees us to work for peace in places where it’s also so desperately needed. The peace God makes with Jesus’ followers frees us to make peacemaking one of our highest priorities.
Because the dirty little secret the evil one doesn’t want us to learn is that as long as we refuse to work to make peace with other people, we’ll never fully enjoy the peace with God that God gives us. God won’t let God’s deeply loved people fully rest until we’ve done everything we can to be reconciled.
Yet we usually expect those who have hurt us to make the first move to reconcile with us. If you’ve pushed me far enough away, I expect you to take the first big steps to get close to me. In other words, it’s the “sinners” we expect to somehow make themselves acceptable to comparative saints like us.
Our text, however, implies that had God waited for God’s adopted children 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 God’s people were still sinning against and, in fact, sprinting away from God, God graciously moved toward us in Jesus Christ. God didn’t even wait for Jesus’ followers to tell God we were sorry before adopting us as God’s children. God took the first and last, as well as every step toward us to reconcile us to God.
Of course, broken relationships (as well as people) often hurt, disappoint and frustrate us so much that even God’s most saintly people naturally pull away from those who have hurt us. Yet peacemakers who follow Jesus don’t pull back, but relentlessly move toward those from whom we’re alienated.
The Holy Spirit equips God’s people to work for peace by helping us 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 still relentlessly work for peace within those contexts.
So our Epistolary Lesson’s preachers and teachers invite all of God’s precious children 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 go as well as send each other, equipped by the Spirit, to imitate God by working for peace with those from whom we’re estranged.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
In her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, Eliza Griswold tells the story of James Movel Wuye. He’s a Nigerian pastor who works alongside his former bitter enemy, Imam Muhammad Nurayan Ashafa in the city of Kaduna to change the way Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians view each other.
During the eighties and nineties, the two leaders taught thousands of their young followers people to kill. The imam’s followers even lopped off the pastor’s arm with a machete more than a decade ago.
Now, however, they are partners in an effort to foster unity among Nigerian youth. Yet James and Muhammad remain deeply devoted to both their faith and the salvation of each other. The imam, in fact, says, “I want James to die as a Muslim, and he wants me to die as a Christian.”
In working for reconciliation, the pastor and imam are acting a bit like God.
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