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.
Let me read a shortened version of Romans 5. As I always like to do, I ask you to think as you here these words and maybe make a comment or two when I’m done. What do you notice here about God’s love—what does this chapter tell us about the meaning of God’s love? Or, what else would you want to say about God’s love?
Since we are made whole by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings. We know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 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.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person. But we see God’s love for us proven in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been made whole by his blood, will we be freed from wrath. 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. This is why, most of all, we boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Now, sin came into the world through one person, Adam, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. However, if the many died through the one person’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the mercy of the one person, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.
Just as by the one person’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one person’s obedience the many will be made just. When the law came in, it led to greater awareness of the trespasses. However, where sin increased, mercy abounded all the more. Just as sin showed its power in a spiral of death, so mercy even more shows its power in making people whole and bringing eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:1-21)
So, what would you want to say about God’s love based on this text?
Let me share part of what I think is going on in Romans five and its message about love. Paul shows himself to be thoroughly Jewish in the book of Romans. At the heart of Paul’s Judaism is a sense of the importance of how we live. Everything matters. Paul does criticize the kind of legalism that uses the commands as tools for maintaining strict boundaries for who is in and who is out. But does so not because he now thinks all that matters is belief in Jesus as savior and that how we live isn’t very important. “Sin so that grace might abound all the more”? That’s garbage!
Paul’s agenda is to encourage his readers to what he calls “the obedience of faith”—by this he doesn’t mean the “obedience” of believing the right thing. No, he means the obedience that leads to loving one’s neighbor. he’ll say later, the law is summarized in this: Love your neighbor.
But this is the issue: Paul writes about ethical rigor. He writes about following the commandments. But what it is about is love. And this foundation of love is precisely what he fears is missing. Those who struggle for faithfulness—non-Jewish Christians and Jewish Christians, and non-Christian Jews—don’t always base things on love.
I read something just the other day that helped me see this dynamic better. Hannah Arendt was an important political philosopher who died in the 1970s. She was a Jew from Germany who escaped the Holocaust in the 1930s and ended up as a professor in the United States. Though not observant, she was profoundly influenced by her Jewish roots. She shared that sense that everything matters—and that Jews have a special responsibility to act for the wellbeing of their fellow human beings.
She wrote a controversial book on Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Arendt was vilified, in part, because she thought it was important to try to understand Eichmann—and to understand the Holocaust. She couldn’t accept saying, this is simply unfathomable evil. Arendt’s writings remain controversial and important. In the article I read (“The Trials of Hannah Arendt”), the author points out that part of why many Jewish political thinkers have been bothered by Arendt (and I think we could include many “Christian realists” here, too) is that they are tired of the burden of responsibility. They want to be regular people and not feel like they are always under an ethical obligation to care for human life.
I was struck with a sense that what leads to this tiredness is a loss of the sense that love is at the heart of our moral obligation. The “obedience of faith” Paul cares about is an obedience borne out of God’s love and empowered by an answering love in the human heart. And such love is something that engenders joy, not a burdensome sense of obligation.
In Romans five, I see three points that Paul makes that help us understand this. What I think Paul says in Romans is not that it’s crucial that human beings be religious, adhere to a certain religion, or affirm a certain set of religious beliefs. No, Paul cares mostly about love—and he recognizes that some non-religious people do love and that all too many religious people don’t. Love is the key thing.
Suffering for the sake of love
First, Paul writes about suffering—and how linking our experience of suffering with our experience of God’s love empower us. Then he writes about how God’s love goes out even to God’s enemies. And, third, he writes about how as the dynamics of sin abound in the world, God’s mercy abound even more. These three points of emphasis help make clear what Paul means by love, how this love is what God cares most about—and is what we should care most about as well.
“We boast in our sufferings,” Paul states. I think he could be misunderstood as saying that we should seek to suffer, that suffering is inherently good. I don’t read him that way. I think he’s saying that in the world he lived in (much like the world we live in), in the midst of the Empire’s domination system, in the midst of religiosity that excludes and harshly judges, to stand for compassion and mercy, to stand for genuine justice and reconciliation will lead to suffering.
Paul’s point is that in the moral economy of God’s kingdom, such suffering is not a sign of a lack of status, it is not a sign of failure, it is not a reason to despair. It is worth boasting about. Of course, this is upside-down boasting. It’s not saying I am better than you. Rather, it’s simply saying that I feel a sense of affirmation. As I follow this path of self-sacrificial love, I know that that puts me in touch with the love that creates and sustains the universe.
Paul says more. This suffering is something God uses for good—to help us gain clarity and strength, endurance and hope. Gandhi knew this. It was not a personal idiosyncrasy that led Gandhi to make self-suffering one of his three main pillars in his philosophy—along with truth and nonviolence. The willingness to suffer helps one strengthen one’s courage. It also transforms the nature of conflict. The dynamic of resistance can be about finding a path to reconciliation where the resisters themselves accept suffering rather than simply dealing it out. How is this self-suffering possible? Because when undertaken, it can actually foster a sense of hope—and even more because in the midst of such suffering, one experiences God’s love being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Suffering for the sake of love, then, is not something to avoid. It is actually a spiritual discipline that deepens one’s faith and connects one with God’s own love in a way nothing else can. And, in the world we live in, simply to love is itself an invitation to suffer—be it suffering in solidarity with the victims of oppression, suffering through actively resisting brokenness and injustice, or simply suffering at the inevitable loss that concludes all relationships of love.
God’s practice of enemy love
Then Paul makes one of the most profound statements about God that we will find anywhere in the Bible. “We see God’s love for us proven in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us…. While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”
The point here is that God loves God’s enemies. The basic dynamic Paul outlined earlier in Romans is that “all have sinned.” all kinds of people trust in things other than God. All kinds of people fail to live in gratitude for the gift of life but instead practice injustice. All kinds of people create enmity between themselves and God—most obviously when they hurt other human beings created in God’s image. We have made ourselves God’s enemies.
And how does God respond? It’s too easy (and, I’d suggest, perhaps too intellectually lazy) to find proof texts to portray God as an angry and punitive judge. Those texts are there, but they are not the definitive witness of the Bible—and they certainly do not describe the God of Jesus. The God of Jesus responds with the most profound kind of love for God’s enemies that is imaginable. It’s self-giving love that faces the worst of human hostility without returning hostility.
Jesus’s “blood” here is not a necessary violent sacrifice that God requires to satisfy God’s holiness in a way that only then allows God to forgive. No, Jesus’s blood is something altogether different. Jesus’s blood is a symbol for a life that followed the path of suffering Paul just mentioned—genuine, committed love and compassion that resists the Powers of domination to the death. Jesus trusted in God’s vindication through resurrection to show that this love and compassion are the true powers of the universe.
God shows God’s love for us in God’s response to our idolatry. God showed persevering love that breaks the spell of the idolatry and allows is to turn us back to God—who, like the father of the Prodigal Son, simply waits for our turn back to embrace us and offer us healing mercy.
Paul knows about this love in a profoundly personal way. We will learn more about that when we get to Romans seven. He himself was literally the chief of sinners, as he wrote elsewhere, he visited deadly violence on the followers of Jesus. Then he met Jesus—not as a vengeful punisher but as a merciful healer. That is how God is—and that is how those who know God’s love themselves seek to be.
It’s been awhile since I have used a Harry Potter reference, but one of the big themes in the books relates here. Harry’s big enemy throughout the story is his classmate Draco Malfoy. In face of Draco’s meanness toward Harry, he seeks to retaliate. And he almost kills Draco. With that, Harry comes to himself. That’s not the kind of person he wants to be. And, in the end, he has a chance to demonstrate his clarity of mind and goes out of his way to save Draco’s life. They don’t actually become friends, but in the final scene of the book, a grown-up Draco gives a grown-up Harry a friendly nod—the sign of a profound transformation.
Finally, Paul writes about how, “just as sin showed its power in a spiral of death, so mercy even more shows its power in making people whole and bringing eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As the hymn says, “let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
“Eternal life” here is essentially synonymous with “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” That is, “eternal life” is not so much about living forever as it is about bringing the realities of eternity, the realities of God’s love, into the present. God’s love works to bring healing amidst brokenness. God’s love is the power of resilience, the power of life in the face of our world’s all too real “spiral of death.”
Bruce Cockburn captures this truth very well in his powerful song, “Where the Death Squad Lives.” He portrays the dynamics of death, “they cut down people like they cut down trees.” But then he offers words of difficult hope: “from every agony a hero is fashioned, around every evil there gathers love, bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above, down where the death squad lives.”
So, what Paul teaches here is that it all starts with love. God’s love is present, engaged, the love that resists the dynamics of oppression, love that brings hope out of despair, love that is—in the end—stronger than darkness and stronger than death.