Ted Grimsrud

It all starts with love: Paul’s message in Romans 5

In Apostle Paul, Biblical theology, peace theology, Romans on May 18, 2015 at 9:09 am

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite, May 17, 2015, Romans 5:1-21 

You know, growing older is a crazy thing. On my birthday a bit more than a week ago my sister posted on Facebook a picture of me when I was about one year old. I looked at that picture (which I don’t remember having seen before) with wonder. That happy, chubby little kid was me—sixty years ago! Then I realized that I am as far from that picture now as I would have been then from a picture taken in 1895.

Or, as I put this sermon together I was thinking of a popular song I remember by folksinger Joan Baez called “Love is Just a Four Letter Word.” Written by Bob Dylan, it was a song I liked when it was new. Well, it came out in 1969. Back then, a song as old as that one is now would have been released in 1923—before country music was invented, and about thirty years before rock and roll.

As is typical with Dylan songs, the lyrics are a bit cryptic, unclear, oblique, and obscure. But the title, repeated many times as a chorus, has stuck with me. Is love “just a four letter word”? We Christians would say, no way. Love is one of our most important positive words—love is the opposite of an obscenity. God is all about love. If we believe in God, we believe in love, right?

God is all about love

But what do we actually mean when we say “God is all about love”? We might even say, quoting one of the letters of John, “God is love”—I certainly believe that. I think the Apostle Paul did, too. And I think this statement, “God is love” is an important clue for understanding Paul’s letter to the Romans.

It’s interesting, though, that sometimes it seems difficult to articulate what we actually mean by love—both when we attribute it to God and when we think about what exactly it is in human experience. I think more than ever, it is important to think carefully about love. Like the British poet W. H. Auden famously wrote at the outset of World War II, “we must love one another or die.”

The fifth chapter of Romans is an important love chapter—maybe not quite as potent at 1 Corinthians 13 (“These three remain, faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love”) yet potent enough, if we can get a sense of what Paul is saying.

Abraham’s gospel: Paul’s message in Romans 4

In Apostle Paul, Biblical theology, mercy, peace theology, Romans on April 20, 2015 at 7:56 am

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite, April 19, 2015, Romans 4:1-25

Kathleen and I love to go on road trips. We’ve been all over the United States and seen some amazing views. We especially love mountains and oceans. We don’t agree with our friends from Winnipeg who say they don’t like mountains because they block the scenery. Although in our time in South Dakota we came to love the prairie too.

In my mind, the greatest viewing experience we ever had came in the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In general, we believe the west is best, but the Parkway, especially in North Carolina, is probably about our favorite drive ever. A few years ago we spent the night in Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. Now, the forest has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

Embracing the entire Bible

This experience came to mind as I was thinking about Romans four, believe it or not. A lot of Christians, maybe especially a lot of Mennonites, are pretty suspicious of the Old Testament. And pretty suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy; the Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. It can redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip coming back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise the whole Bible has great beauty.

Mercy all the way down: Paul’s message in Romans 3

In Biblical theology, peace theology, Romans on April 13, 2015 at 8:44 am

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite—April 12, 2015—Romans 3:9-31

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t really happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this sermon. Some big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

Now, I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe this morning. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or, maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point is that God can’t simply forgive—the moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice—which means salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Today’s Romans 3 passage has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading this morning.

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