First let me begin
this morning with a small confession, or really a concession.
Since I began preaching some 21 years ago on a full-time basis, I have
given 16 sermons out of Paul's letter to the Romans. By comparison
I've preached 61 times just from the gospel of Mark, which of course is
the shortest of the four gospels. Which is just a way of noting
that Romans is probably not one of my favorite texts from which to
preach. And if you know anything about church history you might
find that as a little odd, because it was this letter to the Romans that
really, in many ways, was responsible for the protestant
reformation. It was when Martin Luther was working on Romans, his
commentary on Romans, that he developed his doctrine of justification by
faith and separated, ironically, from the Roman Catholic Church.
And it was this particular passage that is the text for this morning
that is the basis for that notion of justification by faith. That
is, the idea that it is faith and not works that makes us
"right" with God, or justifies us, or saves us, or whatever
language you want to use.
It's not a passage
I've ever preached on before. To be perfectly honest, I much
prefer the stories of Jesus to the sometimes rather heavy, theological,
obtuse language of Paul. And Romans is by far the weightiest, and
the densest of all his letters. But for all its heavy theological
language, the message of Paul in Romans is really quite simple, and he
sums it up in the first chapter in verse 16 "For
I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to
everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
And then Paul
launches into a long description of the sinfulness of the world that has
caused people all kinds of problems. But it's simply his way of
saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world.
And it's not about any one individual's wrong-doing, it's rather what is
wrong with the entire world, with all of humanity, with the human
condition. And he blames it on human nature itself -- it's simply
unavoidable. And then he offers the solution to this
condition. I want to read the text simply as it appears in the New
Revised Standard Version (which is the version you have in your pew),
and a little bit later I'm going to make one slight change to the
text. So you may want to follow along because it's not often you
get to hear the Bible corrected J.
So, reading then from
chapter 3, verses 21 through 31:
now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is
attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of
God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they
are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is
in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of
atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his
righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the
sins previously committed;26it
was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that
he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27Then
what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works?
No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is
justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29Or
is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of
Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the
circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that
same faith. 31Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By
no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
So let's talk just a
little bit about this human condition which Paul describes as "all
have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". There are
two ways, I think, to read this. One is healthy and one is
The unhealthy way
views sin as bad deeds or bad thoughts, and then emphasizes how sinful
we all are. How bad we all are. How in terrible need of some
kind of redemption to overcome this terrible condition we all
need. And therefore that we deserve, you see, punishment by God
for our badness.
There's one thing
that I hear over and over again from new people who come to our church
and that is how refreshing and how wonderful it is to come to a place
where they are not beat up all the time. Not told over & over
again about how bad and awful and sinful that they are.
And I think it was
that understanding of sin and human nature that was clearly reflected in
Mel Gibson's movie the Passion of the Christ. And I have to be
honest and share with you that I do not understand how convincing anyone
about how sinful they are that Jesus had to so terribly, terribly suffer
in order to take away their sin is going to make anyone a healthier
person. We have enough neurosis in the world, we don't need to
take on that kind of guilt of what we caused the Son of God to suffer.
Is there another way,
a healthier way, to envision how we have all sinned? Yes, I think
there is. And that is to describe sin as the separation from God,
rather than to focus on just bad deeds and bad thoughts. Child
psychologists tell us that when we are born we have no individual
identity or self-awareness. For those first 9 months or so of our
existence, our experience of the world is filtered through the
protection of our mother's womb. After birth we slowly become more
aware of the world around us. Unlike in the womb, where everything
is connected, now we are aware of how everything is separate. And
so for self-awareness to mature into a healthy consciousness, we
necessarily must separate ourselves from our parents, from our family,
from all others in order to become the unique individual that we are
And only when we
become most fully aware of how separate we really are do we become aware
then of how separate we are from God. And such separation is not
anything bad, it's simply human nature. However, it is the
continued living in that state of separation that then results in those
things in the world that bring us to where we are and the situation of
so many problems that we face.
And faith is that
which offers a way to overcome that separation. To be connected to
God once again. And this is the basic message of Paul that's very
simple to understand. That the solution to what is wrong in the
world is found through faith in the one God who is the God of all.
But what does it
really mean to have such faith? Imagine you're at the Eugene
airport and you're about ready to board a flight, but you are given the
choice of two planes. You can take plane #1 or plane #2. And
you're told that both planes have pilots freshly graduated out of
school. The first pilot is a graduate of the Tuskegee Aeronautics
Flight School. You've never heard of this flight school, you have
no idea how good it is, but you're told he was a top student, received
A's in all his courses, passed with flying colors. The second
student is a graduate of Northwest Christian College. You know NCC,
he was a bible student. Top student -- got A's in all of his Bible
classes. Now which one are you going to fly with? Do you
Now here's my
point: Paul is not an advocate of blind faith. He is not
suggesting you put your faith in Jesus just because Jesus is a really
nice guy who got good grades at NCC -- The Nazareth College of
Carpenters! Rather, he advocates for faith in Jesus as the one who
has walked the talk, who put his life on the line for us.
Now I want to call
your attention to one of those obscure ambiguities of translation which
sheds new light on this text and I think makes it easier to
understand. It's not really a correction, but just a difference in
translation that makes all the difference in how we read this
Look at page 916 in
your pew Bible, and if you read very carefully there in verse 22, you
read ". . the righteousness for God through
faith in Jesus Christa"
and then what follows immediately after that? Not more words, but
a letter. You see that little letter? You may need
magnifying glasses or borrow the glasses of someone next to you so you
can read that little letter, and you look down in the footnote.
And in the footnote it says:
faith of Jesus Christ"
You see the
difference? Instead of faith in Jesus Christ, it's faith of
Jesus Christ. And in verse 26, the same thing -- at the end of
that verse, ". . . one who has faith in Jesus
b", another little tiny letter, another little
footnote, bottom of the page:
has faith of Jesus"
I love seeing so many
people reading their Bibles at church! It's a good thing to
see! And it's amazing what you learn when you read it seriously
So what's the point
here? This is one of those cases where the Greek has two possible
meanings, both are equally valid. And Bible
translators, the responsible ones anyway, put both translations in there
so that you can read that and understand that there is an ambiguity in
the Greek that does not translate well into the English. It's not
"of" or "in", but it's really both 'of' and 'in'.
And the difference
between having faith "in" Jesus and having the faith
"of" Jesus is like the difference of having money in the bank
and having the money of the bank. Which would you prefer? I
know which one I'd choose!
My contention is that
in this change is the heart of Paul's meaning and the essence of his
teaching about Christian faith. That it's not just about having
faith in Jesus, it's about having the faith of
Jesus. Of living the way that Jesus lived in radical obedience to
the way of God, challenging the politics of Pilate with the justice of
Jesus. The Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God. To love
God not just with heart, body and soul but to love your neighbor as
yourself. And even, even!, to love your enemies. Which as
that popular bumper sticker now going around says -- that probably means
not to kill them.
It is thus not just
faith in this Jesus, as Lord and savior of the world, that saves us, but
it is the faith of Jesus that saves us. When we too trust in God's
might, not in our own, when we love one another as Jesus loved us, when
our giving comes out of our desire not just out of our surplus, when we
follow God with our heart, not just with our head.
There is, I believe,
in every time and place those who have demonstrated such faith and what
it means in concrete terms. Mother Teresa, whose faith turned love
into compassion for the dying. The Dalai Lama, whose faith has
made peace a righteous devotion of highest order. Nelson Mandela,
whose faith forged forgiveness into a political reality and a social
policy in South Africa.
Five summers ago,
some of you went with me on the walk for Farm-worker justice sponsored
by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, in the northern Willamette valley
through the fields visiting farm-workers, going to see the places where
they lived, discussing the conditions of their work with them, and the
efforts to build a more just and equitable system that will protect the
rights and dignity of farm workers while still providing for a stable,
affordable workforce for the agricultural industry and for our
growers. And we concluded with a rally in Salem at the end of that
week. After the rally we held a worship service for all of the
walkers, to give thanks for that experience. As luck would have
it, it was raining pretty good that particular Sunday afternoon.
So we threw ourselves at the mercy of the keepers of the capital and
asked if we couldn't move our service inside. They said, well it's
a public space, as long as you obey the law and don't do anything
illegal and don't use the sound system, you can do whatever you want
inside the capital, in the rotunda. So we held our worship service
right there in the rotunda, around the seal of Oregon. Some people
don't believe in the separation of church and state, I don't know J.
One of the
participants in the leaders of that service read from a letter by Cesar Chavez, written in 1969 on the first anniversary of the assassination of
Martin Luther King. It was a letter he was writing from jail in
the midst of the struggle with the United Farm Workers and grape growers
in California. And Chavez, very much in the tradition of King's
non-violent resistance, and he was, after 25 days of a fast, responding
to an accusation by one of the growers that they had resorted to acts of
violence (unsupported allegations). So this woman stood up and she
read this letter, which I'm only going to read in part, from the steps
there in the capital inside the rotunda:
on Good Friday 1969, we remember the life and sacrifice of Martin
Luther King, who gave himself totally to the non-violent struggle for
peace and justice. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr.
King describes better than I could our hopes for the strike and a
boycott. Quote: "injustice must be exposed with all
the tension its exposure creates. To the light of human
conscience, and the air of national opinion, before it can be
cured." For our part, I admit, that we have seized upon
every tactic and strategy consistent with the morality of our cause to
expose that injustice and thus to heighten the sensitivity of the
American conscience, so that farm workers will have, without
bloodshed, their own union and the dignity of bargaining with their
employers. I must make you understand that our membership, and
the hopes and aspirations of hundreds and thousands of the poor and
dispossessed, that have been raised on our account, are above all
human beings. No better, no worse, than any other cross-section
of human society. We are not saints because we are poor.
But by the same measure, neither are we immoral. We are men and
women who have suffered and endured much not only because of our
abject poverty, but because we have been kept poor. The color of
our skins, the language of our culture and native origins, the lack of
formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the
numbers of our slain in recent wars, all these burdens, generation
after generation, have sought to demoralize us, to break our human
spirit. But God knows we are not beasts of burden. We are
not agriculture implements, or rented slaves. We are men and
women. Our strikers and those who represent us throughout the
world are well-trained for the struggle. They have been taught
not to lie down and die, or to flee in shame. But to resist with
every ounce of human endurance and spirit. To resist not with
retaliation in kind, but to overcome with love and compassion.
With ingenuity and creativity. With hard work and longer
hours. With stamina and patient tenacity. With truth and
public appeal. With politics and law. And with prayer and
fasting. I repeat to you the principle enunciated to the
membership at the start of this fast -- if to build our union required
the deliberate taking of life, either the life of a grower or his
child or the life of a farm worker or her child, that I choose not to
see the union built. This letter does not express all that is in
my heart, but it says, if nothing else, that we do not hate you, or
rejoice to see your industry destroyed. We hate the agri-business
system that seeks to keep us enslaved and we shall overcome and change
it not by retaliation or bloodshed, but by a determined non-violent
struggle, carried on by those masses of farm workers who intend to be
free and human.
yours, Cesar Chavez.
And then the young
woman did something that took my breath away. Something some
people may consider sacrilegious. She held the letter up and she
said "the word of the Lord". Those properly,
liturgically trained, replied: "Thanks be to God".
And a chill went down my spine. And I realized, that the sacrifice
of Christ has given people like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez
faith to put their lives on the line for the sake of others struggling
for God's justice here on earth.
This is the faith of
Jesus. It is the faith that saves us.