Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)

Paul had a preacher’s style that comes through in his writing.

February 24, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 5:1-11

Paul had a preacher’s style that comes through in his writing.

Often, as here, he tells ’em what he’s going to tell ’em. Then he elaborates what he’s told ’em, and finally he tells ’em what he’s just told ’em. It should be simple to follow, right? But Paul writes densely, so a little unpacking of these verses may provide a way to address them powerfully for congregants who seldom get a chance to hear Paul’s rich language of the love of God.

In just two verses Paul covers all time, past, present, and future. We have been justified, set in right relationship with God (or, as will be said in 5:10-11, reconciled). It has happened through our Lord Jesus Christ (note how Paul uses this full naming of Jesus at both the beginning and ending of Romans 5: its all about God’s faithfulness through Jesus and how our lives are different under Jesus’ lordship.). We look forward to a future with God, as the word “hope” implies. Meanwhile we stand in God’s grace. It’s as if we have entered a room filled with it, or perhaps entered the cloud of God’s glorious presence as did Moses and Jesus before us. But truly, the death and resurrection of Jesus make the cosmos God’s house filled with God’s presence. To live in confidence that God fills all the world’s time, past, present and future, is to experience the peace that Paul speaks of in verse 1. It does not matter enormously whether Paul summons us to be at peace with God or indicates that we already have such peace. What matters is that it is peace, shalom arise when we live in confidence that our lives and our world are in the hands on one who loves it and us.

Why, if our justification is already accomplished, do we find peace so oddly absent from God’s beloved creatures, not least ourselves? Perhaps because we confuse God’s love for us with the absence of suffering. Such a confusion beset Israel, safely delivered from Egypt but wandering in the wilderness, not yet at home. Such confusion threatens Paul’s congregations not only here, but also in Corinth (cf. I Corinthians 10:1-12). Paul puts the realities front and center. Yes, we stand in such love that we boast confidently in our hope of God’s glory. And, yes, we boast also in the very difficulties we experience. Paul does not let his hearers imagine that difficulties are a contrary witness to God’s promises. Rather we survive them by growing in our hope, appreciating difficulties for the real, but penultimate occurrences that they are. Even our troubles, rightly lived through, lead us around again to hope. Hope itself, says Paul, in a verse glowing with intimacy, is founded on God’s gift of love already poured into us by the presence of God, Holy Spirit, in and among us.

Now Paul did not see the world with rose-colored glasses. He was not an idealistic fool who only liked to think the best of people. Had he been like this, he would have been set up for radical disappointment and we would do well to ignore his words. But, Paul based his confidence on God’s love poured into our midst on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The extent of God’s love is shown by Jesus’ bizarre behavior, humanly speaking. He died for us sinners, for folks who could not appreciate his death, for folks whose gratitude would be measured and compromised time after time. What kind of love could or would do this? Our beloved Lenten hymn, “What wondrous love is this” asks the same question with the same sense of awe that one hears in Paul.

Paul does not get stuck in admiration or awe. Rather briskly he moves on to remind us that our hope of God’s glory is exactly our hope of reconciliation with God such that we will be saved. If this sounds a little like 5:21 to you, you’re right. Paul’s re-cap in 12-21 of his earlier teaching ends with the promise of eternal life with God. All this will be celebrated yet again in 8:32-33-39 where Paul almost sings that nothing will be able to separate us from the one who loved us, that is, from the love of God.

The meaning of justification, Paul’s very first word in Romans 5, is that we are brought into the reconciled family of God. This love of God has triumphed over not only our human failings, but also over God’s own characteristic passion for justice. God’s own grief at the gap between humans and Godself has also been reconciled.

Our having been saved “in” the life of God’s son is an important part of this section. While en with the dative case can suggest incorporation or means, either interpretation reminds us that it is Jesus’ life that gives us life. This will be a major emphasis in Romans 6 where Paul states that baptism is the way we are caught up in the life of Jesus or by it, such that we live his life. The sheer effrontery of that claim is shocking. We “boast” Paul says, in the God who so loved us, even as we boast in our sufferings and boast in our hope of experiencing the glory of God.
This boasting is not about simply bragging. About what would we have to brag? That has already been disallowed in Romans. But boasting here is the opposite of shame, as it is used in v. 5. Our hope will NOT shame us, disappoint us, show us to be fools. Instead, difficulties or not, we live trusting in God’s love, God’s outreach, God’s determination to have us at great cost, now and in the future. How then do we live joyfully confident of reconciliation now and in the future?