We continue in Paul's
letter to the Romans, where I left off a couple of weeks ago, now in the
5th chapter, verses 1 through 11:
Therefore, since we are
justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus
Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace
in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of
God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our
sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and
endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and
hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into
our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6 For while we were
still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed,
rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a
good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God
proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died
for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been
justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of
God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to
God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been
reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than
that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom
we have now received reconciliation.
Before I go further,
I need to go backward in this text. After Paul's introduction and
his greetings, personal words that he gives to the people in the
Christian community in Rome, he introduces the theme of his letter,
chapter 1, verse 16, when he says: "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.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed. . ."
And then he contrasts
that righteousness of God with the wrath of God against ungodliness and
wickedness, exemplified by a long list he gives of sins, including
sexual impurity, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander,
insolence, pride, just to name a few. And the very first sin in
that text, in that long and inclusive list (because I think the intent
of Paul is to include all of us in it) is one that we often
overlook. If you want to look for yourselves -- chapter 1, verses
22 & 23, where he says of the ungodly and the wicked: ".
. claiming to be wise they became fools and they exchanged the glory of
the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being, or birds,
or four-footed animals, or reptiles". I just want to
hang on to that and set it aside for a moment, because I'm going to come
back to it.
The point of all of
this comes to a conclusion in chapter 3 when Paul says: "All
[all!] have sinned, have fallen short of
the glory of God". In other words, just as all are
equal in Christ -- Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female (a major theme
of Paul's ministry) -- so too all are equal in sin. And if you
take that literally it comes out quite absurd. To suggest that the
sin of Adolf Hitler is no greater than the sins of Mother Teresa, you
see, would just strike us as being silly. Or that our sin, you
see, is no worse than any others. So we give it lip service when
it serves our interests, but do we really believe that? Do we
really believe that my piddling little sin is as great as that of. . .
the dope pusher or the child molester or the mass murderer?
But you see that's
not the point that Paul is trying to make. This is rhetorical
overkill. To use a sports analogy, it's the same as when our team
comes onto the field and we chant "We're #1, We're #1".
That may or may not be literally true (unless it's the Ducks J).
Or now, even the Beavers in baseball, on the verge of the College World
Series. That's good to see -- you know, we can enjoy and celebrate
that because the Ducks don't have a baseball team, so that makes it
But that's part of
the enthusiasm of the sport. Well, Paul is a Christ
enthusiast. And he is building his case for the righteousness of
God through Christ. And to do so, he has to establish first of all
the unrighteousness of everyone else. Now we might amend Paul and
say, well some fall more short of the glory of God than others --
I mean, there are some of us who fall just a little bit short, and then
there are others of us who fall WAY short! But the point is:
we ALL fall short, you see, regardless of how short we are.
And there is a
critical spiritual insight here that we often miss. Namely, that
when it comes to good and evil, there are no absolutes, save for
God. That everyone has a bit of good and a bit of evil in
them. The lecture I gave a few weeks ago at Temple Beth Israel on
Church & State, in which my thesis was in essence when government
uses religion it tends to abuse power. If you missed that, didn't
get it in the Eugene Weekly when it reprinted, you
can read it on our web site. Or you can come to City Club of
Eugene on July 8th when I'll be repeating that. We may do it some
evening here as well, or have some dialogue about it.
At any rate, I'm not
going to repeat it now, but at the end of the lecture, the very first
question I received was from an elderly gentlemen, a World War II
veteran turned radical peace activist, who asked me: "Who is
the greatest terrorist in the world today?". And I know who
he wanted me to name, he wanted me to name President Bush, and there
were probably some in the crowd that would have said "Amen, yeah,
that's right". But I didn't go there. For starters I
don't believe it, and I think it's a great mistake among the activists
when they make such extreme claims. It's much more important to
realize, and this is critical to the point I was trying to make, that
the moment we label someone as "evil", whoever our enemy might
be, we've labeled them as the world's greatest terrorist, we become the
very evil we seek to destroy. Why? Because evil must be
opposed with all means possible. It should be no surprise that
torture would be employed -- you're fighting evil, after all. And
the result is not the containment of evil, but the unleashing of more
evil. And that's why I believe, and I've said from the very
beginning, that the war on terrorism will ultimately fail. You
cannot defeat terrorism with war. Just as you cannot end evil with
Jesus showed us the
way to end evil, and that way is the way of the cross. Paul says
that is what justifies us, that is what makes us "just", what
makes us righteous before God. It is the way of the cross not the
way of the sword that offers the greatest hope to end evil in our world
today. As Paul says: ". .
suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character
produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God's love has
been poured into our hearts".
Those who seek to
eradicate their own sin are those most apt to take up the cross of
Christ whereas those who seek to eradicate the sins of others are the
ones most apt to take up the sword.
Or the machete -- if
you've seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, the instrument of choice was the
machete, as the Hutus, in a most incomprehensible act, suddenly turned
against their Tutsi neighbors, as the story is told in that movie, very
powerful movie, brutally murdering approximately 1 million people while
the Western world stood by and watched and did nothing. That's a
sin we all share in. But the movie was not just about that
senseless brutality, it was mainly the story of the remarkable courage
of one man. Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, the manager of the hotel,
who put his life on the line to save nearly 1,200 Tutsis. Now if
you want to understand this big theological term 'justification', I
would suggest to simply watch the movie Hotel Rwanda, because Paul
Rusesabagina takes in the refugee Tutsis, all condemned people, and he
makes them just. That is, he secures their protection and
eventually liberates them from their Hutu captors.
Paul's message, you
see, is that is what Jesus does for us. He makes us just. He
saves us from any condemnation. And the amazing truth of God's
love is that the death of Jesus is not just for the good and the
righteous, but precisely, you see, for the unrighteous and the bad as
Now this has two
far-reaching and practical implications for us. First of all, it
changes our lives. It frees us from a world of sin to live in and
by a world of grace. Paul describes this as "living in
Christ". For Paul, in a very real sense, the answer to sin is
not to stop sinning. The answer to sin is start living in
Christ. That is, to give yourself to a higher purpose. And
it makes perfect sense if you think about it -- if you want to stop some
bad habit and you just focus on that bad habit (be it eating or smoking
or gambling), more often than not you will fail because that's your sole
focus. The secret to replacing the bad habit is not to focus on
the negative but to focus on the positive. To focus on the good
behavior as the alternative to the bad. And for Paul then, the
most positive of all is to live in Christ, and the result as he says in
Chapter 8 is that 'there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ
Jesus'. In other words, even if you continue to fall short of the
glory of God, in Christ Jesus we still have the possibility, we are
still included in God's love, God's community of salvation. And
secondly, then, it changes our world.
Now I want to take
you back to that verse in chapter 1 that I started with, where Paul
refers to the images resembling human beings, birds, beasts, and
reptiles. What on earth can Paul possibly be referring to?
In the year 13 before
our common era (13 BCE), that is approximately 13 years before the birth
of Jesus, the Roman Senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace
should be built to honor the successful conquest of Caesar Augustus over
Gaul. There you see it:
On our left, or on
her right, you see the heavens portrayed in a woman riding on a
swan. Then on her left, or our right, the seas are portrayed in
the form of a woman who is riding on a serpent. This is the image
of the famous "Pax Romana" -- the Peace of Rome. The
entire world, from the heights of the heavens to the depths dwells in
the peace on the altar of Augustus in the field of war awash in the
blood of sacrifice.
How is one justified
in Rome? The message is very clear -- by making sacrifice to the
divine Augustus at that altar of Augustan Peace for the God of
War. And this says in essence, then, 'since we are justified by
religious piety, we have peace with God through our Lord
And this is the
response of Paul to that message, when he writes: ".
. claiming to be wise, they become fools, and they exchange the glory of
the immortal God for images resembling human beings, or birds, or
four-footed animals, or reptiles".
Hear again, then,
Paul's alternative to this vision for world peace: "Therefore,
since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through
our Lord Jesus Christ".
scholar N.T. Wright on this text: "God has established true
peace so different from Pax Romana, on the foundation of true justice,
so different from Roman justice, and has done so through the Lord Jesus
Christ, so different from the Lord Caesar. Thus the sacrifice of
Jesus stands in direct opposition to the sacrifices by Caesar there at
the altar of Augustan Peace".
Now to understand the
relevance of this message, we need not go back all the way to the first
century of the Roman Empire. We need go back only to 1938, when
the various peaces of this monument were pulled out of museums across
Europe and reassembled under the direction of Benito Mussolini.
Shown here in the dedication to show to the world that the empire once
again would give us victory through war as the way to peace under one
rule. Seven years later, Mussolini and 55 million others were dead
before peace was established not through the victory of empire, but
through its defeat.