My name is Jacob, and I have a problem.
(All say, “Hi, Jacob.”)
I have a real problem with being right. It’s one of those tendencies I have had since I was a child.
If the rules are there, they should be enforced.
If A is true for some people, it should be true for everyone.
If Kid #1 gets this, then Kid #2 should get the same thing.
It’s usually about “fair.”
As always, the best example of my own stupidity (near stupidity?) comes from a driving experience. It was one of those swimming nights, you know, a swim meet that gets delayed over and over again for thunder, lightning, or … whatever. We’d sat there for four hours and they were finally telling us to come back the next day to resume the meet. So everyone is leaving at once, some of whom didn’t want to be there at nine p.m. anyway… and no one is feeling too charitable.
After several false starts to get out of my parking space, yodeling children in the background, I finally bull my way backward to get in line. I watch as two sections of the parking lot carefully alternate merge (a friend of mine calls it “the zipper method“) and then, it’s finally my turn!
When the minivan next to me starts to go. So like a good New Englander, I honk, and proceed to go. Because that was fair. Because it was my turn.
Because, my wife tells me, because I’m an idiot who put the car and the family behind “fair.”
As much as I hate to admit it, she’s right. I have a “fair” problem.
Thankfully, God does not.
Paul writes in Romans 5 “since we have been justified through faith” and he could’ve just hit ‘enter’ a few times and moved on to the next chapter.
You know what justified is, right? All of us with computer typing skills, even typewriter typing skills, know that you can set the line of your paragraph to be “justified.” You can set it to be lined up correctly so that everything falls into place. So that you can be in the right spot.
Paul says we’re justified by faith. We’re not justified, put in the right spot because we are integrally good. We’re not in the line because we know the right thing, or we do the right thing, or because we’re trying to be good people.
But the thing is, we convince ourselves all of the time that we’re the ones who are good. We got here on our own. We did it. We should get the credit. We know what is right because of our perspective, or our reading of the Bible (did you know that all of the versions of the Bible we have today are translations from Hebrew and Greek, many of them transposed from other people’s understanding of the earliest version of the Bible?)
Someone recently shared with me a story about a well-meaning woman who had a new neighbor.
A young couple had moved into a their neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the longstanding neighborhood woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. “That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.”
Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her new neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the other woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? ”
The husband replies, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”
Sometimes, Jesus said, it’s our windows that need cleaned, not our neighbors. And Paul got that. Paul understood that sometimes our windows, our viewpoint into the world, got in the way of us recognizing how big God is.
Paul experienced that for himself when the early church wrestled with whether or not Gentiles – non-Jews could be Christians or not. The disciples, people like Peter and Paul argued about whether or not people who weren’t directly descended from Abraham, could actually follow Jesus. And they prayed about it a lot.
In Acts 15:28 it says that they made their grand, decisive announcement:
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us.”
It seemed good, not “we’re sure” or “we know,” but more like “based on the body of work we have for Jesus, we’re pretty sure we’re supposed to.”
These are people who helped figure out what the creeds should be. You know, the “I believe in…”
And the early church ended up erring on the side of grace.
Paul says we’re justified because, when, at the time, that we have faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ Paul highlighted in Romans 1:16 – that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again so that we could be forgiven of our sins.
Now, that’s certainly not fair, is it? Jesus, who had done nothing wrong, Jesus, who didn’t break any of the rules, Jesus, who loved everyone, served everyone, and sacrificed his godhead for everyone, died on the cross for me?
Whoa! “Fair” just got kicked to the curb. Grace takes it’s place.
So what exactly can we be justified in? What are our non-negotiables?
Jesus was God’s son.
Jesus died on the cross.
Jesus rose again.
Those are the things Paul is sure of.
Some of you have heard me say a slogan we came up with at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes years ago: “Love God. Love Others. Worry About the Rest Later.”
Paul has been reworking that slogan for me. I think it’s probably more likely that it’s “Love God. Love Others. Let God Worry About The Rest Later.”
Paul says we are to focus on faith, and grace, and hope (5:2).
Hope is that thing that evil, injustice, persecution, bad days, black nights, sad endings, and all of the junk you see on the nightly news cannot destroy.
Hope is that thing that says that ISIS doesn’t get the last word, even while the news stations are bandying fear about like it’s their best source of revenue (and it is.)
Hope is that thing that says that little glimmer of hope is so radical, that the pitch dark better watch out.
Hope is that thing that says the church is greater than gunmen or arsonists.
Hope is that thing at the bottom of your soul that refuses to give up even when the rest of you has fallen to the floor in defeat.
Hope is that thing that says the church is the place where God shows up, regardless of whether you’re with the 5 or the 4 of the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision.
Paul says that in hope we can:
glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance (5:3)
recognize that perseverance produces character (5:4)
recognize that character produces, you guessed it, hope, again (5:5)!
We don’t get hope because we do enough or know enough or even pray enough; we get hope because we have faith in Jesus, and when we have faith we persevere, and when we persevere over time, our character grows, and when our character grows, our reserve of hope increases!
Paul backs up for a minute in Romans 5:6-8, some of the coolest verses in a chapter full of powerful one-liners, filled with nuggets that shine a little light on what it means to be faithful:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Jesus died for you while you were messed up, stuck, down in the dumps, selfish, conceited, broken, neglected, unrepairable. Jesus died for you before you knew Jesus needed to die for you to be saved. Jesus died for you for the moments in which you are at your worst.
Jesus died for you even though He knew what “you’re really like.”
Jesus didn’t die for you because you helped the old lady next door, or you forgave your spouse, or because you sent some money to take care of orphans in a Third World country.
Jesus died for you because there was no other way that you could be saved from your own mess.
While we were powerless. While you were not even good, let alone great.
While you and I were still sinners.
Jesus died for you, even though you’re going to sin today, maybe before you even leave church. He doesn’t have to keep dying; Jesus’ death once and for all is enough. (That’s why we don’t rebaptize you – you were saved by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He ain’t dying again!)
Did you need to hear that today? Do you need to stop and think about it? Does it give you hope?
You’re forgiven. You can make it. Not because of anything you’ve done, but just by believing, having faith, that Jesus’ death and resurrection is enough.
It hardly seems fair, does it? In a country where we tell each other to work harder to get ahead, in a time when we emphasize that you should put in more hours, save more money, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, these words of Paul seem pretty countercultural.
“Since we have been justified by faith… while we were yet sinners.”
I thought about all of this last week as I stood beneath the mighty stone arch of Natural Bridge in Lexington, Virginia. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.
It was a melting pot of thoughts and emotions in my mind, things that many of you have probably considered over the last week:
-The merciless shooting of the Charleston 9 while they prayed in church.
-The terrorist threat of ISIS around Independence Day.
-The 5-4 vote of SCOTUS to make gay marriage legal in the U.S.
-The debate over the worth of the Confederate flag.
All of these were swirling in my mind, as I stood below this arch, and thought about Paul’s stubborn pronouncement that we are saved by a God who put the elements in motion that created this grand natural bridge, who made us each unique and powerful and creative, and who sent his son to die on the cross so that we could be with God forever.
It kind of puts things in perspective for me, as God’s movement in my life has a tendency to do.
God is God, and I am not. (All say, “Thank God!”)
God loves me … a lot.
God sent his son who died for my sins.
God wants me to live free.
That’s the truth of the gospel. It’s true last week, next week, and on a Sunday when we celebrate our country’s independence.
No war could make us free from sin. No earthly battle could be fought for our souls.
Instead, God sent his son to die on the cross so that those who would have faith would be saved. God wants everyone to be saved. God wants us to be justified by grace.
And, I believe, God wants us to get over ourselves.
See, one of the truths that I’m sure someone brought up when they got to arguing about whether Gentiles could be in the church or not was a little story from the Book of Ruth – about a Moabite woman (a Gentile) who married Boaz, a Jew, who had a baby named Obed, who grew up to be Jesse’s father, who was David’s father, all the way down the line to Mary’s, the mother of Jesus, father.
Jesus, who was raised a Jew, but who wasn’t even 100% Jewish.
Think about that one for too long… and your mind will be blown.
God wants us to get grace and faith, but it’s not simple.
We just have to let go of our preconceived ideas about how life works, about what fair is, about the alternate merge and umpires and taxes and doing the right thing and deciding who gets it right and who doesn’t.
We don’t get to decide. We can’t save ourselves. We can only hope.