Is there any phrase in the English lexicon that’s stranger than “to die for”? After all, when we claim something is “to die for,” we’re not describing something that’s as tragic as death itself. I’ve never heard anyone say, for instance, that racial injustice or a global pandemic was “to die for” – even though they sometimes cause death.
When we say something is to “die for,” we mean that it’s especially beautiful or wonderful. I’ve only heard people say that something like lovely weather, a stunning dress or luscious food was “to die for.”
Yet in Romans 5 Paul says that what was “to die for” was something that is tragic and flawed. “When we were still powerless,” the apostle tells the Romans, “Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We can almost see Paul’s thoughts trip over each other as the words roll out of his inspired pen. He begins by insisting, “Christ died for the ungodly.” Yet we can almost imagine the apostle then stopping himself and saying, “But what did I just say?”
After all, who in the world would die for an ungodly person? Most people might not even give their lives for a good person. A few people might be willing to die for an outstanding person. “But,” we also can imagine Paul adding, “I doubt it!”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers might envision giving our lives for people we like, such as our family members or closest friends. But, frankly, it’s hard for me, for instance, who assumes I still have life to live, to imagine dying for anyone else.
Of course, dying for one’s country is a sad but routine part of military service. President George W. Bush awarded U.S. Navy Seal Michael Monsoor the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Iraq war. When insurgents threw a grenade onto the roof of a building where six other soldiers were positioned with him, Monsoor immediately fell onto the grenade, fatally wounding himself but sparing his comrades.
Memorials for heroes like Michael Monsoor sometimes contain Jesus’ words from John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Yet as Fleming Rutledge, to whom I owe a number of ideas for this Commentary notes, what Paul is saying in our text is far more radical.
After all, the apostle isn’t talking about dying for one’s friends, family members or country. No, he insists, “When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And in case we didn’t get the message the first time, Paul adds, in verse 8, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In order to let the Spirit open our hearers to Romans 5’s truths, its proclaimers might ask them to imagine the least godly person they know. Some would answer brutal police officers or greedy looters. Then we might ask our hearers to imagine them going or sending good people to die for them.
While that’s hard to imagine, Paul says Christ did something remarkably like that. He died not for those who naturally consider ourselves religious, but for those who were still irreverent. Christ died not for those who are respectable, but for those who were still disreputable. Quite simply, Christ died for people like us who, if we’d been there, would naturally have tolerated if not demanded his death.
Of course it’s in some ways, hard to for God’s dearly beloved people think of ourselves as “ungodly.” The Holy Spirit is, after all, transforming us to resemble the risen and ascended Christ. So as Romans 5’s proclaimers and hearers read this text, we need to think of ourselves as we would be had God not rescued us. Or, perhaps, we need to think of ourselves as we are at our most selfish moments, as “sinners.”
Jim Van Tholen was a 31 year-old Christian Reformed minister. As he was dying of cancer, he wrote one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read. In it he admitted that the prospect of his death sobered him because he was scared of meeting God.
After all, he’d had more than thirty years to heap up a stinking pile of sins. Yet Jim had always assumed that he’d have forty more years to make up for all his bad actions. But as he preached this stirring sermon, he realized that he had months, not years to do so.
The Holy Spirit, however, comforted Van Tholen by pointing him to that little word “still” in our text’s 6th verse. In fact, though the English doesn’t reflect it, Paul actually uses the word twice there, literally insisting, “Still while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
While God has equipped God’s adopted children with the Holy Spirit in order to make us holy, we’re not as obedient as we should be. While Christ gave us everything, his followers have given him comparatively little in return.
Of course, Christians like to imagine that we’re making progress toward sinlessness. Yet the Bible remains us that we make little genuine headway. The Israelites repeatedly flunked the Covenant. Jesus’ disciples were uneven ambassadors. Sin scarred even the New Testament’s early churches. Every Sunday many of God’s people set aside time during worship to confess that we’ve sinned against God.
Recent events in the United States have reminded us that we’ve made insufficient progress in combatting racism and racial injustice. The global pandemic reminds us that we remain vulnerable to contagious diseases. It’s not just that we’re not all we can be. It’s also that we’re not what God created us to be.
So as long as Jesus’ followers live, we never stop praying, with Luke 18’s tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or with the Church, “Christ, have mercy upon us.” In fact, if Christ were to return at this very moment, it would be the prayer that first came to many of us.
Ironically, however, as Rutledge notes, few but those whom God has graciously saved think of ourselves as sinners. Most people whom God has not yet redeemed reject the idea. Nor do even God’s adopted sons and daughters like to talk about what Paul calls our “powerlessness.” People have, after all, convinced us that, unless someone has victimized us, we’re powerful enough to take care of ourselves. What’s more, our culture has convinced us that “God helps those who help themselves.”
Yet the Scriptures actually teach us just the opposite of “God helps those who help themselves.” They repeatedly insist that just when his adopted brothers and sisters couldn’t help ourselves, Christ died for us.
However, something about this text may still puzzle God’s beloved people. In it, after all, Paul says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Yet while he and some of his contemporaries were probably alive when Jesus died, not one of this Commentary’s readers was even born yet. So how can Paul say, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us?”
The answer is that he’s speaking corporately. Paul isn’t just talking about his contemporaries and himself. He’s talking about humanity. The apostle is essentially saying, “When humanity was still stuck in the mess that is sin, Christ died for us.” When, in other words, sin left the human race powerless to go to God in faith, God graciously came to us in Christ.
Yet what’s true of humanity in general is also true of individuals. We profess that our own sin leaves us naturally powerless to go to God in faith. So God showed God’s self-giving, self-sacrificing love for us by coming to us in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us. God loved not the lovable, but the naturally unlovable, even at the cost of the death of God’s only Son.
Paul probably understood this better than many relatively good Christians who have tried to follow Jesus as long as we can remember. After all, while the apostle was still busy persecuting Christians, God graciously reached down and saved him.
While the apostle wasn’t even contemplating repentance, God’s grace stopped him in his tracks. While he was running away from God’s will, God graciously turned him around to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
Rutledge invites us to imagine someone we’ve deeply hated or has hurt us saving our life. Wouldn’t that completely change the way we view that person? Now imagine that person you once despised not only saving your life, but also actually giving her life for you, perhaps by taking a bullet. Wouldn’t that completely overhaul your life?
That’s precisely what God has done for us in Christ. In Isaiah 53 the prophet says, “He was despised and rejected by men … the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
My cancer diagnosis reminded me of my frailty and mortality. The global pandemic has confronted at least some of us with the fact that there are things about death that sober, if not frighten us. At times we fear the pain and suffering that sometimes accompany death. I sometimes also dread the tearing away from our loved ones that death will bring.
But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds us that there’s one thing about death that God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to fear. Because Christ lived, died and rose again from the dead, we don’t have to fear meeting God. Who, after all, on a summer Sunday is to “die for”? To God’s way of thinking, we are, by God’s amazing grace.
The unlikelihood of giving one’s life for another person is part of what makes what happened outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 such a dramatic part of American lore. It’s a startling story that those who survived that ghastly day will never forget.
Americans deeply treasure it in part because United Flight 93’s passengers gave their lives not only for their friends, but also for strangers like all of us. In fact, they let death rip them away from those they loved for people they’d never met.
It’s almost too dreadful to even imagine what would have happened if terrorists had succeeded in flying United Flight 93 into the White House or Capital. I suspect that the United States would still be recovering had those passengers not given their lives for their fellow Americans on 9/11.
Just imagine how much more terrible our plight would be had Jesus not died for naturally ungodly sinners like us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 14, 2020
Romans 5:1-8 Commentary