Today, I have titled my sermon, “God on trial.” I have done so for a couple of reasons. First, there are many people in the U.S. who are walking away from organized religion. Half of those who walk away say that they no longer believe in God for various reasons. In a very real way, they have looked at the evidence for God and about God and have found it lacking. They have put the idea of God on trial and convicted Him of absence. The second reason is related to the first–God’s seeming absence in the face of injustice and evil. This has been a major problem for those who believe in God for many, many years. The logical argument is thus: if God is all powerful and if God is all good, then why does God allow bad things to happen? Why doesn’t God cure illness and disease? Why doesn’t God correct the many wrongs that go on throughout the world where people in power abuse those are weak. Why doesn’t God do something about the hatred and anger and abuse and violence that goes on in the world? Does God care and if He does, can’t He act? In a very real way, folks who ask these questions are putting God on trial. In effect, they are asking the question: is God just? Is God righteous?
As we turn to our next installment of the book of Romans, I want to begin with a little bit of a study of the Koine Greek–the language in which the New Testament is written. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be too detailed, but the detail I am going to reveal here is important. The Greek word for righteousness and justice is the same word. Therefore, whenever you read through the book of Romans or any other New Testament book, if you see the word justice, you can interchange it with righteousness, and vice versa. This will come into play in just a little while as we talk about Paul’s words to the church in Rome.
After Paul’s initial greeting, he follows the traditional customs of letter writing in the first century Roman empire. He offers some gracious words of thanksgiving to the people he writes to. In one way, you could say that he was buttering them up.
Paul begins: First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. Paul is using some exaggeration here most likely. Most scholars believe that the church in Rome was not large by any extent. In fact, our membership very likely exceeds the number of Christians in Rome at the time Paul writes this letter. At a maximum, the church in Rome may have numbered 200 people in a city of over a million. But this is no small thing. Rome is the center of the Roman empire–the most powerful empire in the world at the time. It is where the emperor: Caesar, sits enthroned. To profess “Jesus is Lord” right under the nose of those who demanded all Roman subjects profess “Caesar is Lord,” is an act of extreme bravery–something we know little about in our present situation. But the Roman Christians’ trust in God empowered them to hold fast to their proclamation despite the threat–truly something to proclaim throughout the world.
9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. Paul then offers an intriguing oath, swearing before God that he prays regularly for the Roman church–desperately wanting to come and visit them. Speculation is that Paul may have included this heart-felt prayer because some of the members in the Roman church felt slighted that the self-described “apostle to the Gentiles” hadn’t visited them in the heart of the Gentile world. Paul wants to soothe their soreness as he pens some very important words to them.
11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. Paul obviously feels that he has something very important to share with the church in Rome. The jury is still out as to what he wants to share with the Christians there, but Paul quickly points out that he does not want to come simply to impart knowledge on his own behalf. There is a mutual sharing and growth that will occur. This is quite revolutionary for us to think about because oftentimes, our thoughts tend to trend toward the idea that “I go to church to get something.” Certainly, when we come to church, we should receive encouragement as we face our daily lives, but the encouragement also flows from us into others. In other words, I am not simply giving you encouragement when you come through those doors, you are giving me encouragement as well. We mutually build one another up. This is ideally the way the church works.
13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15— hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. Paul now closes out his reasons for wanting to come to Rome as he wants to reap a harvest–meaning make converts to Christianity because he is a debtor to both Greeks and to barbarians–to the wise and to the foolish. What does Paul mean by this? Tim Keller offered up a very interesting way to understand what Paul is saying here. There are two ways of becoming indebted to a person. First, if I borrow $100 from you, then I am indebted to you until I pay you back. Secondly, if you give me $100 and say, “Please give this to my friend.” Then I am indebted to your friend until I pass on that $100. Paul believes he has received something that is not his–the Gospel. Paul believes he is indebted to the world–to Greeks and barbarians; to the wise and foolish–and he must pass the Gospel onto them. He must pass the Gospel onto everyone. Why?
Here is where we begin to return to my original statement about God being on trial. Paul lays in the next two verses what he will be arguing about in the rest of the letter: 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. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ If you just read through these words quickly, you can gloss over it and not think much about them. However, if you read through these words slowly and try to understand them, you will find yourself scratching your head. What in the world is Paul actually saying? Why does he have to state that he is not ashamed of the Gospel? What and how is the righteousness or justice of God revealed? What does through faith for faith mean?
Let me begin by reminding you that the Gospel hinges upon the person of Jesus. Jesus would have been considered a failure from a Jewish perspective because he failed to bring about the promises surrounding the Messiah. He did not free the Jews from oppression. He did not usher in world peace. He did not cleanse the Temple system. Everything continued to run as before despite what Jesus said. AND, Jesus was also hung on a tree–which meant, according to Jewish scripture–he was cursed. All of this amounts to tremendous failure from the standpoint of Jews. From the standpoint of Rome, he was also a failure. Jesus was considered a criminal who was seditious. He was crucified because He challenged the power of Rome and proclaimed allegiance to another kingdom–God’s kingdom. No Roman citizen was happy about knowing someone who was crucified. It was a source of shame. But Paul was not ashamed of any of this. Not in the least. In fact, Paul saw the Gospel as power. Paul had traveled throughout the Roman empire and preached Jesus. Whenever he preached Jesus, hearts were changed; minds were changed; lives were changed; people acted and spoke differently–all because of the story of Jesus. A story. Mere words changed people deep within. One commentary even said that some must have thought this to be magical. But Paul saw it as power because of what it revealed about God.
For the Gospel showed that God is indeed just. God is indeed righteous. Now, we will be spending a lot of time on this in the coming weeks, so I will try to summarize and keep things as brief as possible in the limited time we have. First, Paul will show that humanity has rebelled against God. No one has an excuse when it comes to knowing what God would have us do. Deeply embedded in creation is the knowledge of right and wrong. Deeply imbedded in our being is the idea of fairness and justice. Deeply imbedded in the core of our being is the knowledge of the way things should be. We know what we should do, but we do not do it. Justice; righteousness demands that such rebellion must be punished. Justice; righteousness demands that wrongs be made right. Justice; righteousness demands that evil be reversed and dealt with.
Every one of us knows this deeply. Every one of us knows what it is like to be wronged by someone else. Every one of us knows that for the wrong to be righted, some payment must be offered up–an acknowledgment of wrong; repayment of that which was lost; the repairing of what was broken. Until we feel satisfied with repayment; restitution; apology; we do not feel as though justice has been served–we do not feel as though all is right.
But now we run into a problem. Two problems in fact. First, we run into the problem of our own inability to right the wrongs. We are incapable of righting the wrongs that we do. You may disagree with me here. You may say, “Yes, I do some bad things, but I also do a lot of good things.” I understand what you are saying, but let me get you to think about this a little bit. Let’s say that one day you are careless and you back into anther person’s car. You are embarrassed, and the damage isn’t too terrible, so you leave the scene. “It was just a little ding,” you say to yourself. You know it’s wrong. So, later that day, you see a homeless person with a sign asking for donations to get food. You put a $20 bill in the guy’s cup. You instantly feel better about doing some good. Things have evened out right? Wrong. They other person’s car still isn’t fixed. Until you right the wrong you committed, you are still in debt to the other person. Until you right the specific wrong, you haven’t made things just. And if you break God’s commands...can you become completely right? Can you become completely just with God. The answer, we will see is no. We cannot become right with God. That’s problem one, and it is certainly not Gospel–good news.
Problem number two is the amount of injustice that permeates the world. Very, very few of the world’s people ever get justice. Very few of the world’s people ever have the wrongs committed against them righted. People who died as slaves never received freedom. There are people who were murdered whose killer were never found. There are people who have been swindled out of money who never received a dime back from it. People who try to do the right things end up having terrible diseases are killed by natural disasters and suffer terrible loss. The powerful take advantage of the powerless, and not much ever happens. Things are not right. They are not just.
What is God’s answer to both of these problems? Jesus.
First, God’s righteousness/justice is revealed on the cross. God pays your debt that you have accumulated with Him. Revisiting the car analogy: the owner of the car fixed the ding without asking you to pay damages. What became free to you, cost him time and money. And if he decides not to press charges, you have a lot to be thankful for. When it comes to sin, God changes our status before Him. He reveals our righteousness and our justice by paying the price for our sins. He does this out of His great love: for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all of those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
Secondly, God’s righteousness/justice is revealed in how Jesus lived as He announced the breaking in of the kingdom of God. When the news of the Gospel takes root in your heart and mind, you are changed. You are transformed. You want to live and move differently. You want to participate in a world where there is no more hunger, thirst, or poverty. You want to participate in a world where all people are treated as children of God with dignity and respect. You want to see reconciliation take place, and so you seek out others who share this view. You seek out others who want to be a part of such a kingdom and you form a culture within a culture. You form a church–a church which seeks to be the kingdom of God in the world; engaging the world; without becoming a part of the world. In the church, justice/righteousness is practiced because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
Finally, God’s justice/righteousness is revealed in the resurrection. For in the resurrection all the evil that had been done was undone. All the darkness was transformed into light. All the sadness was transformed into joy. The promise of the resurrection is the promise that all evil will one day be overcome. Death will be defeated. God will reign supreme. The resurrection says that God will have the final word, and so we live in hope.
And we put our trust in God. We put our faith in the one who died to make us right with Him. We put our faith in the one who has established His kingdom on earth and made us a part of it. We put our faith in the one who will make all things new. When you focus on God revealed in Jesus, you too can say as St. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” You can see that God is indeed just. You can see that He is indeed righteous. You can see that there is no need to bring God to trial. There is simply a need to trust in what God has, is, and will accomplish. For He transforms you through the Gospel. He transforms the world through the church, and He will transform heaven and earth in His good time. Amen.