Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Summer in Rome, week 1 of 4 A four-week series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Preached July 5, 2020 for the 9:30am Virtual Worship
For July, Caitlan and I will be spending some time in Paul’s letter to the Romans, specifically chapters five through eight. Even though this is the first letter in the New Testament, most scholars believe it was probably one of Paul’s last letters. In some of his earlier letters, he was fiery, passionate, aggressive, and still working out the kinks of his new theology, and the way it would affect his new life in Christ. By Romans, Paul is beginning to settle down and get comfortable in the nuances. He’s not as sharp or harsh, but still as passionate and committed as ever. He’s refined much of his language, and he’s become content with the mystery of God he will never be able to grasp in words.
I love this letter, and hope these four weeks help you love it too.
Scripture Romans 5:1-11
5:1 Therefore, since we all are justified by faith, we can have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we can also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and 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 See, while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died … for the unrighteous. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood, will we (also) be saved through Christ from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies (of God), we were reconciled to God through the death of God’s (own) Son, much more surely, having (already) been reconciled, will we be saved by (Christ’s new) life. 11 That’s why in the end, we can even boast … in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have already received reconciliation.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
Jill and I have been binge watching a show on Netflix called “The Good Place”. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but its about people who die, and end up going to the GOOD place, or maybe the BAD place.
Now, that kind of language isn’t very scriptural. That’s not the way Jesus talks about God’s Kingdom of Heaven. When Jesus DOES talk about the kingdom of heaven, we don’t go to it when we die, as much as it comes to us whenever God decides... and, when it comes, it changes everything for everyone, living or dead, not just for some lucky or blessed subset... and when Jesus talks about Hades or Sheol, he’s usually talking about the trash dump outside the city gates, or the Hebrew concept of the place we sleep after death until God’s kingdom comes, not some fiery demonic torture chamber invented by Dante in the 1300s.
This show, the Good Place, is a comedy, and plays along with the misconception of earning our spot in the good place or getting our just desserts in the bad place based on the words and actions of our lives.
One character in the show is named Chidi. In life he was a moral philosophy professor. He has very high moral standards and finds himself in quandaries quite often where he is unable to judge what is the better, most ethical way to speak or act. It makes it hard for him to decide things, and he gets stuck doing nothing sometimes, out of fear he might not choose the most ethical option. One day, in his exhaustion over the futility of seeking the perfect, ethical good life… he’s teaching a class and he says something like this:
“Over the last 2500 years, philosophers have used three main theories to define how to live an ethical life. First, there’s Virtue Ethics, the belief that there are certain good virtues, beliefs, character traits, and to be good, one just needs to develop oneself in accord with those virtues… generosity, compassion, etc… Second, there’s Consequentialism, the belief that the basis for judgement on whether something is right or wrong depends on the consequences of the action, how much utility or good result from it versus how much pain or bad it causes. Third is Deontology, the belief that there are strict rules and duties everyone must adhere to in a functioning society, and being good is simply identifying and obeying those duties and following those rules.” Then Chidi, in his paralyzed state, says, “All three are wrong. The true meaning of life is Nihilism. There is no point to anything and we’re all going to die.”
You don’t find too many Nihilists in a Christian Church. But you will often find the other three.
Virtue ethics folks talk about believing the right things. They talk about someone being a good person, of good character, and know that from what the person said they believe. If someone wrote amazing things and inspired others, that’s enough, no matter what their own personal actions were… so like Thomas Jefferson... despite his slave owning past, and his adultery with some of his slaves.
Consequentialists in church will often talk about the "What if"… or challenge an idea or suggestion with “Okay, but what about…” They aren’t trying to be resistant. They are trying to see what the consequences of decisions, actions, or words might be on others, because that’s the way they judge whether something is good or bad... so like someone who kills, but does so to prevent even more killing.
Last, Deontologists are usually pretty clear about what they believe is right or wrong. They can totally disagree with one another, but their sense of right and wrong has to do with what they believe makes for a good community... like, those who believe conservative values are right to have a free community, and those who believe progressive values are right to have an equitable community.
Paul is more like Chidi. He doesn’t play along with any of these worlds views.
Is it our beliefs that make us justified, or right with God? You might think so at first. Paul does say, we are “justified by faith.” But then Paul adds, “we can have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” In other words, it isn’t OUR faith that makes us right with God. It is JESUS’ faith, his faithfulness that justifies us with God. We stand in God’s presence, forgiven, graced, because of what Jesus believed, not because of our beliefs.
Is it our actions, the consequences of our actions and words by which God judges us? Paul does say, we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God… and in our sufferings, because the consequence of our sufferings is endurance, which has the consequence of character, which has the consequence of hope, and hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love is poured into us. But here’s the thing... God poured God’s love into us beforehand. While we were still weak to sin, scattering the consequences of our sin all around, Christ died for the unrighteous. God’s grace and love are not consequences of our actions, but come to us before and despite our actions.
Then it must be the third one, right, deontology, where we just need to obey and follow God’s rules, and in so doing, help rebuild God’s precious beloved community? Well, not quite. We’ve already been justified (made right with God) by God’s faithfulness, and by God’s prevenient love that came not as a consequence of our actions but despite our sin.
So is it our obedience that brings in God’s kingdom? No. By the same God, the same Christ, that is how we will be saved. If God considered us right with God while we were enemies of God, and made us good with God again not through our actions but through the sacrificial love of God’s own self, then salvation, new life, will not come to us through our obedience but through God’s, not through our following but through Christ’s.
We have already received reconciliation, not through our faith or through our works… we can be sure of that... and we can trust we will also receive salvation itself, not through our obedience, but through God’s grace and Christ’s obedience.
See, Paul was unraveling the best moral philosophers of his day, and trying to teach all of Rome it wasn’t as much about them as it was about God. Isn’t it funny we are still trying to learn it 2000 years later through Netflix sitcoms.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown