Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Gospel is for Christians Too (Lent 3) Romans 5:1-11

Romans 5:1-11
St. Thomas Memorial Church
Lent III
March 23, 2014

The Gospel is for Christians too... I am not going to preach on this morning’s ‘world’s longest’ gospel lesson. (Yes, it is the longest gospel reading of the year, and you made it through it. It’s all down stream from here.) I have to sometimes remind myself not to preach from the gospels every week so that we’ll all be exposed to the other rich sections of the Scriptures. The gospel lesson is often made up of narrative and so sometimes a bit easier to preach on than the ‘long, complicated’ arguments of Paul.  But we can’t ignore Paul, for as I’ve said before, Paul often times makes explicit what the gospel narratives leave implicit.  In Paul we find the radical gospel--one of his major themes--that Christ is in the business of ‘justifying the ungodly’. Or, to use less churchy parlance, Christ came to rescue suffering sinners like me and you.

This passage from Romans is one of my favorite passages of Scripture--maybe my favorite.  It is this very passage that makes clear that ‘while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’ This is the announcement of God’s one-way love for rebellious persons like you and me; this is the good news.  

The church that I grew up in used to proclaim something like this message very well to unbelievers.  The church had a thriving biker ministry.  Now if any of you here are bikers don’t think that I lump all of you into one category, but the bikers that came to our church were the bad kind of bikers. The bikers who did cocaine and heroin and who were violent.  Some had wild stories about being at the end of their rope with a needle in their arm.  These people heard about the forgiveness of sins and the offer for a new life at just the right moment, and everything changed. They had a conversion experience.  They found that Christ was interested in failures and burnouts--the ungodly--and they wanted in. The good news really was good for these folks.  

Me, on the other hand, I grew up in the church. My mom was the one who converted from Judaism. I don’t remember ever not being a Christian. I’ve been in church for forever--I could have been birthed there for all I know.  I grew up with regular ‘altar calls', and sermons that seemed to always end with ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations.’ A good and necessary imperative, but after years of the same thing it got old.
It wasn’t long before I came to think of pastors as the cable guy.  You know, the guy who comes up to your door and offers you cable for $49.99 a month (a great deal) for six months, only to have it be raised to $129.99 from then on.  I came to think of Christianity as good news for unbelievers and the unchurched, but not so much for we insiders--once you got it in it stopped being a good deal.  After you came off the high of your conversion experience, it was time to face up to the fact that all you were gonna get from here on out was moralism. It was time you'd gotten your act together. If you didn’t see steady progress of growth in moral behavior, maybe your Christianity didn’t take. Where did all that good news go?  Where was the one-way love of Christ for sinners who'd become Christian?

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that St. Paul makes it clear that the gospel is for Christians too.  Look at verse eight, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  There’s the good news for unbelievers that I was so accustomed to hearing, but interestingly enough Paul does not end there. Let’s read on, “Much more surely then, (or as another translation reads, ‘how much more’) now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely (how much more), having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Here Paul is talking about Christian sinners.  If when we were at enmity with God--because from time immemorial we have gone it our own way and not God’s way--he reconciled us to himself, how much more will he continue to do the the same after we have been put in right relationship with him.  Again, what Paul is saying is that if Christ has already done the hard work of reconciling us to himself while we were his enemies, how much more we he finish the work that he started now that we are his friends.  He already accomplished the difficult thing, much more surely now will he complete the job doing the easy part.  

N.T Wright illustrates this argument with a few helpful examples. He says ‘if someone has struggled up a sheer rock face, against all the odds, to get to the top of the mountain, they are not likely to give up when, at the top of the vertical wall, they are faced with an easy stroll on a grassy path to get to the summit itself.’  That is the force of Paul’s argument.  He also writes, ‘If someone has driven to the other end of the country, through rain and snow and freezing fog, to see a friend in need, they are not going to abandon their quest when they arrive at the house, the skies clear, the sun comes out, and all they have to do is walk up the garden path and ring the doorbell.’  That is the force of Paul’s argument.  God has already accomplished the hard work in Jesus, he can be trusted to do the easy bit.

Paul's argument shows that the gospel is good news for Christians too.  While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly... Christian.  There is peace and forgiveness for Christian sinners too.  

This revelation given to Paul must have made a lot of sense to him.  Paul, as you may well remember, used to be called Saul.  A man who murdered Christians before Christ broke into his life in a radical way.  It is this very ungodly man whom Christ came to save and use.  Same thing with the main character in this morning’s gospel lesson.  The Samaritan woman had had five husbands and the man she was currently living with wasn’t her husband.  The story implicitly shows that Christ came to seek out sinners; sinners like you and me.  

Finally, Paul will later write in Romans that as a Christian he continues to do the very the things he does not want to do, and does not do the things he wants to do.  The good that he would do he often times doesn’t, and the bad that he wouldn’t he does.  And yet Christ is in the business of justifying the ungodly Paul.  His one-way love for suffering sinners extends to Christian sinners.

When I saw this for the first time in college it came as something of a revelation.  I came to realize that God is not like the cable guy at all.  That Christianity truly is good news for Christians too.  I began to realize that I no longer needed to constantly navel-gaze.  I no longer needed to be obsessed with the state of my own personal holiness.  Instead I began to internalize the radical love of God for sinners, even Christian ones.  I also began to realize that instead of looking inward I could look outward.  I was free to serve others because I was no longer bent in upon myself. (I could even start thinking about my own personal holiness because I knew that my standing before God was not contingent upon my progress, or lack thereof.)

Maybe you’ve been in church your whole life, or maybe you had one of those intense conversion experiences like the bikers at my old church. Either way the gospel is not a bait and switch.  God is not the cable guy.  You are not stuck in a raw deal that only seemed good at first.  Christ came to save ungodly Christian sinners too.  This is the good news that is too good to be true and yet it is… namely that the Gospel doesn't stop being good news once you've entered the fold. The Gospel is for Christians too.  

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