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Faith That Saves

Sermon – 6/12/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 5:1-11

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.

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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 easy!

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 more evil.

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 well.

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:

It was built quite intentionally upon the field of war, dedicated to the God Mars, the God of War.  The altar was built for the sole purpose of sacrificing animals in order to please the God of War.

John Dominic Crossan, and this is part of what I have been teaching on a course on Paul that we're 1/2 way through, summarizes:  "first comes religious devotion, then comes war, then comes victory, then comes peace."  That's what the Roman imperial theology was all about, necessarily and only in that order (piety, war, victory, peace).  The Senate, by the way, the Roman Senate also declared Augustus divine, and gave him the title "Son of God", a title used by every Caesar thereafter, in their own lifetimes.

Now alongside of the altar is the portrayal of the family of Augustus, with their royal entourage in procession on the way to the altar for the annual sacrifice.  A panel on the backside, in the upper left-hand corner portrays peace in the form of a woman.  Perhaps the goddess of Rome, who sits serenely above the inhabited world (see all the animals down below there) with the children on her lap.  

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 Caesar'.  

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".

Concludes British 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.  

Such has been, and always will be, the way of empires.  

Our hope has been, and always will be, with the way of Jesus.

 


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