Last week, we St. Paul revealed that one of the consequences of us being justified by grace through faith is that we can boast in our suffering. This was quite an unheard of bit of news as Paul explained: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us or put us to shame because of the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Paul was showing how suffering reveals the things we can truly count on, and when all is cut away from us, our true character is revealed. And, if our ultimate trust is in Jesus–is in God, then we have a sure and certain hope that God will transform our sufferings into something good. We may not see that this side of eternity, but in the long run, God will take suffering and make good come out of it.
This week, Paul is responding to an unspoken question, and that unspoken question is: how do you know? How do you know God will do such a thing? How can you count on Him to make good come out of suffering? How can you have such a hope. Paul’s response is essentially this: Let me show you the depths of God’s love.
When I was in junior high, I played football. Our seventh grade team went undefeated and was district champions. It was frankly awesome, and I had high hopes going into my eighth grade year. And that year started off very well. We won our opening games, but then something happened. We began to lose. We lost several in a row, and I knew why.
Our practice times had turned into times of goofing off. I am a big, huge proponent of the idea that the way you practice is the way you play. My dad instilled that in me at an early age, and we weren’t practicing well. Every time we’d try to practice plays, there was laughing and cutting up. There was joking around and going through the motions instead of seriously running the plays and drills. And I pegged the ringleader of the disruptions and messing around. I set him directly in my sights.
Frankly, I didn’t like this teammate at all. Not only was he screwing up on the practice field and inciting the goofing off; I didn’t like him as a person during school either. In class, he would do just enough to get by oftentimes cracking stupid answers to questions and mockingly reading class assignments. Between classes, he would take a few drinks from a thermos in his locker, and that thermos didn’t have Coke, or tea, or water in it either. In eighth grade, he was constantly trying to lure girls into sleeping with him. Whenever we stopped after a football game and bought snacks at a convenience store, he loaded his pockets–without paying. I hated him. Yes, that’s the way I felt. And I felt powerless to do anything about his antics on or off the field.
Until one day at practice, that is. We just so happened to be doing a drill where there was one offensive player who was supposed to run the ball and score. There was one defensive player who was supposed to tackle the ball carrier. My teammate was on offense. I ended up across from him on defense. For me, the opportunity to exact justice had arrived. I knew this guy was going to loaf it. I knew he would clown around and go half speed even though we were supposed to be trying our best. I wouldn’t be holding back. I would be going full speed, and I would be hitting him as hard as I possibly could.
The results were predictable. It took the coaches between five and ten minutes to get the guy up off the ground. I stood there watching with no regret. No remorse. He was okay. Nothing broken or badly hurt. Just really, really bruised. In my mind, justice was served.
And that’s the way we generally feel. If someone has hurt us or has prevented us from getting something we desire...If we feel like someone has harmed us or those we love...if someone has done wrong to us, we generally want revenge. We want justice. We want the wrongs righted. This is what we do to our enemies!!! Revenge. Retribution. Justice. It’s what we clamor for!!
And we see such tit for tat taking place all over our society–all over our world. From the politics just down the road in Sealy and Bellville to the politics on the national scene, if decisions are made that go against our party or our organization, we pull out all the stops to get retribution; to cause the other party grief; to make them look foolish. It is the default setting of humanity.
And we usually believe very strongly that we are in the right. I was absolutely convinced of my stance and my role as the enforcer of justice. I wasn’t clowning around. I wasn’t stealing. I wasn’t luring girls to my bedroom. I was an all ‘A’ student who took my learning as seriously as my football. I was the good guy. We generally think that we are.
But looking back at these events that took place nearly 30 years ago, I have to wonder. Sure, my teammate was screwing up a whole lot of things, but after 30 years, who really cares about the won/loss record of an eighth grade football team in a town with a population of only 2300? What does it really matter in the big picture? And what would have happened if I had really hurt my teammate. What if he would have had to have surgery? He would be bearing the scars and the pain to this day. Does screwing up on the football field deserve 30 years or more of pain and scars? And yet, I happily inflicted bodily injury for my slights. I can imagine standing before the Almighty God and accounting for this act in my life, and frankly, I’m pretty sure my teammate would get off easier than I would. Put in proper perspective, I’m not as innocent as I seem, and my actions are quite filled with guilt–all because I wanted, demanded, and took justice into my own hands.
Put into proper perspective. That is the key. We need to put ourselves in proper perspective, and I think that if we do, if we look deep into that mirror; if we set aside all of the lies that society tells us–you know those lies. You deeply want to believe them. You want them to be true. The lies that say that you are perfect just the way you are. That there is nothing wrong with you. That you are owed respect and love and honor. When you believe those lies, then you start believing that you bear no responsibility for what is wrong in the world–it is the world that is messed up, not you. But those are lies. Everyone of us knows that we are not perfect. Deep down, every one of us knows that we are broken, and that the problems of the world are not out there alone. They are also in here–in the very recesses of our hearts. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see it. Just as when I am honest with myself now, I know the wrongness of my actions so long ago.
You may wonder why I am making you confront the reality of yourself. You may wonder why I am making you delve into the depths of your heart to confront your brokenness–your sinfulness, for that is the term we use in the Christian faith. And I am doing so for one reason and one reason alone. You have to know your brokenness so that you too can know the depths of God’s love.
Hear now St. Paul’s words again from Romans chapter five: 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.
Paul uses three words to describe us in this passage: ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God. These are not flattering words. These are not words that we like to hear as descriptors of ourselves. This is something we rebel against. We want to think that we are just. We want to think that we are good. We want to think that we are imperfect, but we’re not all that bad. Perspective. Stop looking from your perspective. Look from God’s perspective, and from that perspective, we stand condemned. Paul spent almost three chapters of this book showing us this very thing. Paul spent three chapters showing us that we seek out our own desires, our own ways, our own false gods. We do not seek God’s way? We rebel against God’s Law. We rebel against God’s commands. We thumb our nose at Him and refuse to worship Him as we should. We refuse to care for His creation as we should. We refuse to love our neighbor as we should. We think we are so good and holy and just, but we are seeing from our own perspective. We refuse to look at us from God’s perspective because we are ashamed of what we will see. We don’t want to see such a thing, because from God’s perspective we deserve His wrath; divine punishment.
“But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let that statement sink in. “But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
While we were enemies to God, Christ died for us.
While we were ungodly, Christ died for us.
When we didn’t deserve it, Christ died for us.
Who does that? I mean it. Really, who does that kind of thing?
Who dies for their enemies? Who dies for someone who has hurt them deeply? Who goes the second, third, fourth mile to show kindness for someone who has wronged them? This is not human nature in the least. This is not how we act at all.
But it is how God acts! This is how God operates! This is what God did at the cross when Jesus became the atoning sacrifice for our sins! Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This kind of love was never heard of in the ancient world. No one died for their enemies. No one. For a good person, that was rare, as Paul points out. But no one died for their enemies.
God did. And Paul implicitly shows this as he talks about Jesus. As N.T. Wright says, “What Paul says here makes no sense unless Jesus, in his life and death, was the very incarnation, the ‘enfleshment’ (that is what incarnation means) of the living, loving God. After all, it doesn’t make sense if I say to you, ‘I see you’re in a real mess! Now, I love you so much that I’m going to...to send someone else to help you out of it.’”
Yes, Jesus is God. God died for us while we were still enemies. God showed us this kind of love.
And if he shows us this kind of love while we are enemies, what kind of love will God show us now that we have been added to His family? What kind of love will God show us now that we are no longer His enemies but now His friends? What kind of love will God give to us now that we are justified–put in good standing with him; and also reconciled–put in a right relationship? The answer for Paul is clear–if God has done so much when we were estranged from Him, God will easily take care of us now that we have been brought near.
This is the reason Paul says we can count on God transforming our suffering into good. This is the reason Paul says we can trust in God above all things. He died for us when we didn’t deserve it. His love goes beyond anything that we can imagine. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should 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.
God did not condemn you when you were His enemy. He died for you. He poured out His love for you. Will you now put your trust in Him? Will you now put your hope in Him? Will you long for His presence and His purpose in your life? Will you love Him as He has loved you? May the Spirit lead us all to respond, “Yes!” with loud and reckless abandon. Amen.