Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 12, 2022
Romans 5:1-5 Commentary
A quick glance at the church year’s calendar may make gospel proclaimers’ pulses race. Trinity Sunday has, after all, come again. It may make proclaimers’ palms sweat not just because, as the New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa to whose commentary I owe a great deal for this commentary, notes, “reference to the Trinity is itself enough to cause the eyes of many contemporary Christians to glaze over with befuddlement.” At least some of our hearers wonder why the doctrine of the Trinity important and what it means for them.
However, as I wrote in an earlier commentary on this passage, proclaimers may also worry that we’ll say something heretical about the Trinity. We may worry that even if we don’t say anything that gets us drummed out of the church, we may proclaim something that gets us into trouble with people who write volumes as thick as our fists about the Trinity.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson should be candid about its relationship to the Trinity. It neither refers to the Trinity nor offers a theological treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity. What Romans 5 does is mention the three persons of the Trinity: “God [the Father]” (1), God the Son, “the Lord Jesus Christ” (1), and God “the Holy Spirit” (5).
Those who wish to proclaim this Lesson may take some cues from Beverly Gaventa. She notes that in it Paul provides what she calls “glimpses of the ways in which God [the Father], Jesus Christ [the Son], and the Spirit interact with one another and act on behalf of” God’s dearly beloved people.
Metaphors for God’s Triune nature have come and gone down through the centuries. But one image has endured: the relational nature of the members of the Godhead. The Church professes that members of the Trinity are deeply linked in a mutual relationship of love, service, sacrifice and dependence.
Those who proclaim Romans 5 might point to how it reveals part of the way that the Triune God extends that relationship to God’s dearly beloved people. Each member of the Trinity has a role to play in drawing God’s justified children into relationship not only with God, but also with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, of course, gives the most attention to the First Person of the Trinity, to whom Paul refers as “God.” Humanity naturally chooses to declare war on God in an effort to displace God from God’s rightful place not only as our God, but also the God of the whole universe. We willingly declare ourselves God’s “enemies” (10).
God, however, has graciously given us what verse 2 calls, “peace with God.” Paul insists that God has made that peace with us “through Jesus Christ,” the second person of the Trinity. Because of what Jesus did, God has declared that we’re not God’s enemies, but God’s adopted children. God the Father who has enjoyed an eternal relationship with the other members of the Trinity has graciously drawn us into a loving and trusting relationship with God.
God has, says Paul, “justified” us. We are dikaiothentes. It’s a legal term that refers to a defendant being declared innocent of charges. The Church has traditionally interpreted “justification” as God’s declaration of God’s dearly beloved people as righteous. Some proclaimers may even have grown up with the saying that to be justified is to be treated by God “just as if I’d never sinned.”
But “justification” is also a term that Neal Plantinga, in his lovely book, Deep Down Faith (CRC Publications, 2012), updates. He writes, “Justification is God’s acceptance of unacceptable people.” It includes not just our forgiveness, but also what we sometimes call “alien righteousness.” When God justifies God’s adopted sons and daughters, God graciously replaces our natural unrighteousness with Jesus Christ’s righteousness. God graciously not only views but also treats us as though we were, in Plantinga’s words, completely “holy, just and good.”
Because of what Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, did, those whom God grants faith in him receive a relationship with God. God summons those who receive God’s grace with faith in Jesus Christ into a relationship with God that mirrors, however incompletely, the relationship among the members of the Trinity.
Verse 2 also refers to the First Person of the Trinity when it speaks of “the hope of the glory of God.” Translators argue over whether God’s people “rejoice” or “boast” that glory. But Paul’s focus on that glory (doxes) underlines the relationship the Triune God establishes with Christ Jesus’ friends.
After all, as Gaventa notes, God’s Old Testament glory is God’s presence among God’s people, as in Exodus 24:16 where God’s glorious presence settles on the Mt. Sinai that Moses has ascended. God’s glory also sometimes refers to God’s victorious presence before God’s enemies.
Since to be present to someone is to be in relationship with that person, God’s dearly beloved people in and whom the Spirit lives and works already taste the glory for which we hope already here and now. Yet we also look forward to and hope in the glorious presence of God with, for and among us in the new earth and heaven.
Paul explicitly refers to the Second Person of the Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ, in verse 1. The Son of God, the apostle has already written in Romans 4:25, “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Through God the Son’s saving life and death, God’s beloved people have the peace with God that is a close relationship with God.
The apostle refers to the Third Person of the Trinity only once in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. “God,” he writes in verse 5, “has poured out his love into our heart by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” God’s adopted sons and daughters experience the part of a relationship with God that is love through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We know we are beloved by God because the Holy Spirit graciously makes the Spirit’s home in our hearts.
Yet the apostle is also almost certainly alluding to the work of the Second Person of the Trinity in verses 3-4’s great “chain reaction.” There he insists that we “rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” None of this production happens on its own. Only the Spirit can turn suffering into hope.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Lesson might explore how the Triune God’s work to be and stay in relationship to God’s people’s impacts God’s people’s relationship with other Christians. That’s certainly among the themes of John 16 and 17, of which this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson is a part. There the Second Person of the Trinity who enjoys such a close relationship with the other persons of the Trinity prays that God will also grace those who believe in the Triune God with a close relationship with each other.
In Deep Down Faith, Plantinga writes about Tom, a talented if young and inexperienced thief. He isn’t just what Plantinga calls “smart, quick, and daring.” Tom also has a job that gives him plenty of chances to use his “skill.” He works as an assistant school custodian. He washes tabletops, sweeps floors, and shoves desks back into orderly rows. While he’s at it, Tom also raids students’ lockers and teachers’ desks from which he steals things.
Over time both students and teachers became increasingly irritated by their losses. While most missing amounts were small, once Tom stole the sizable proceeds from candy and ice cream sales at a basketball game. Another time a tenth grader who’d left all her birthday money in her locker found it gone on Monday when she returned to school.
Tom tried to put his thefts to good use. He bought clothes with which he hoped to impress his classmates. He convinced his parents to let him buy the latest smart phone. Tom also bought things for students he admired. Sometimes they’d accept them. Other times, however, his classmates would just look at him strangely and walk away. Tom was never able to buy the acceptance he craved.
Then one Thursday as he was rifling through Mr. Gunst’s desk, the history teacher quietly appeared behind him and asked him what he was doing. While Tom tried to concoct excuses for searching Mr. Gunst’s desk, he couldn’t think of any. “He could tell,” says Plantinga, “from the tone of Mr. Gunst’s voice that he couldn’t think of any either.
Mr. Gunst was a teacher not all students liked, but all respected. He didn’t joke around with students. He was firm, but fair. At first, Tom tried to lie to his teacher about the other thefts. But he’d begun to feel very tired, small, and guilty. On top of that, he found Mr. Gunst remarkably hard to lie to. So Tom confessed everything. He even told Mr. Gunst he was stealing things because he felt unaccepted and out of the center of things. Tom stole to try to fit in.
Plantinga writes, “Mr. Gunst … was firm about what Tom had done. It was plain wrong. Stealing could not be justified. Somehow Tom would have to repay every penny of the stolen money. And Tom would have to make friends some other way, some right way.”
Plantinga continues, “On the other hand – perhaps because Tom was so miserable and felt so wrong and guilty – Mr. Gunst was incredibly kind to Tom himself. He acted as if, although Tom had done something all wrong, Tom himself was all right. Mr. Gunst did not justify what Tom had done, but he did justify Tom. That is, he accepted Tom, forgave him for going through his desk, and tried to arrange things so that Tom could be reconciled with the school community.”
“In doing those things,” adds Plantinga, “Mr. Gunst acted like God.”
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