LEARNING FROM LIFE LESSONS
Romans 5: 1-8
A story I heard years ago came across my computer recently. It describes the situation in our Bibles today:
One Sunday morning in a small southern church, the new pastor called on one his longtime deacons to lead the opening prayer. The deacon stepped up front and started his prayer: “Lord, I hate buttermilk.” The pastor opened one eye and wondered where this prayer was going. The deacon continued: “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the pastor was perplexed, wondering if he should step in. But the prayer continued: “And Lord I sure don’t like flour. But mix it together with the lard and the buttermilk, and bake ‘em in the oven, they become biscuits. And Lord, I love biscuits. Help us to realize, Lord, when we can’t see how the ingredients of our lives can possibly come together, that you have a recipe for our lives. You call it a plan, or a purpose, but whatever it is, we need to wait and see what you are making of us. And who knows? Whatever it is , it might be better than biscuits. Amen.”
In other words: we may not like certain passages in the Bible. We may want to skip them. Thomas Jefferson actually took a sharp object, like a pen knife, and cut out bible passages that he found offensive! It is still preserved as the Jeffersonian Bible in the Smithsonian Museum of American History! But like the recipe for biscuits, the message of the Bible needs all of its ingredients! Paul said it this way in his letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good, with those who love God, and who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)
Today we are looking at Paul’s masterpiece: the letter he wrote to the Romans. Listen to the way the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, describes this Epistle:
“With regard to the excellency of this Epistle, I know not whether it would be well for me to dwell long on the subject; for I fear, lest through my recommendations falling far short of what they ought to be, I should do nothing but obscure its merits….What can never be sufficiently appreciated—that when anyone gains a knowledge of this epistle—he has an entrance opened to him of the most hidden treasures of Scripture.” [Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol XIX, Baker Books, p.xxix.] John Calvin so respected Paul and his writing in Romans!
Romans is like an adult treatise in Christian theology. To thoroughly cover what we believe as Presbyterian Christians would take more time than we have today. We would need to cover the Ten Commandments and our belief in the Sovereignty of God. We would need to cover Genesis 1 and John 1and remember that Jesus became God in the flesh. We would recall that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God, and that the one commonly called the Father is our Creator. We would need to cover John 3:16 to remind ourselves that Jesus died to give us life eternally. And we would look at the church’s creeds, like The Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed, and masterpiece documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith. When we repeat the Apostles’ Creed today, hear these fresh words of explanation:
We believe in God, called Father, or Creator;
We believe in Jesus, the only Son, our Lord, and in all that the Bible says happened to him, including that he descended into Hell: which meant he felt truly separated and abandoned by his Heavenly Father, not for his own sins, but for ours, and that he really died; it was no act or charade.
We also believe in the Holy Spirit (who the Nicene Creed declares) proceeds from the Father and the Son, and along with them, is worshipped and glorified! (Trinity Sunday reminds us of that.) And yes, we believe in the holy catholic Church, words written long before the Protestant Reformation that simply means the holy universal Church contains many congregations, like Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12:27] “How can we tell the true church?” John Calvin rhetorically asked. He answered: “Where the Word of God is rightly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, where virtue is encouraged and where vice is vanquished, there, it is not to be doubted, a Church of Jesus Christ exists.” Finally in the Apostles’ Creed we affirm our belief in the forgiveness of sins, [which is what Jesus did for us by his death], the resurrection of the body (meaning Jesus physically rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven) and that we believe in the life everlasting, meaning we have every hope that we will be in Heaven one day.
With all of that said, if a believer wanted to learn the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Romans contains them. Paul’s letter is a treatise of Christian theology. Roman 8, Romans 12, and today’s text of Romans 5 are all Scriptural gold. Although Romans is bedrock Christianity, some statements might need to be read twice. Today, for example, we read: “Since we are justified by faith ….” What does that mean? It means we have been made right with God through our faith in God, not by our good deeds. One woman in the church helped me learn this forever. She said, “Being justified by God is being presented faultless before God just as if I had not sinned.” That is a wonderful way to remember justification. Christians believe we are presented faultless before God by our faith, not by our good works. Some people think we earn our place in heaven by our good works. Instead, we have faith that we already have a place in God’s heart, because we have faith in God, and our joyful response is with good works!
The second thing Christians believe is that we can obtain peace with God once we are put right with God. Notice our order of worship. We start by acknowledging God as we are called to worship, and as we sing a hymn of praise to God. Then we acknowledge our sinfulness and offer a group confession as a reminder of that. God already knows we sin and is ready to forgive us when we acknowledge it! The Declaration of Forgiveness points the way to restoring the broken relationship with our Creator. Then each Sunday, we pass a word of greeting and peace because we have been forgiven! Continuing in Romans, verse 2 of chapter 5 is tricky wording, saying we boast of (or have the assurance of) the hope that we will one day encounter God’s glory and live in the hereafter. We don’t boast in ourselves, we boast in what Christ has done for us, so others can consider being a Christian too! Verse 3 then says: “We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
No one tests the mettle of my faith like those who have suffering, who are good people, and who are wondering about the presence and purpose of God. They ask “Why is this happening? What is the purpose? Where is God in all this?” In the Old Testament, Job was among those who asked those questions of God. In the New Testament, Jesus himself asked some of them. They had their faith tested, as some of you have today. Paul thinks holding onto hope is important in the midst of our struggles. As Jacob once wrestled with an angel to get a blessing from God, you too may need to wrestle with God, crying out for answers to questions and light for your darkness. Ask! And ask again! The great people of faith certainly wrestled with God, from Mother Teresa to the great Reformer Martin Luther. Even the person down the pew from you may be struggling. Wrestle with God, yes, but don’t move away from God, or write God out of your life! It seems odd to boast in one’s sufferings. Some have put it this way: the devil only meddles with the lives of committed Christians. You may feel tested. Hold fast to God. I have struggled with God too, including a life changing Dark Night of the Soul. Some of you have had even worse troubles and have come through your darkness. Some have been on our prayer list for weeks. And as hard as it is for Christians to handle their troubles, it is infinitely harder for the lost sheep of the world to handle them. Keep yourself anchored to the solid Rock of Christ. For our sakes, he was whipped under orders from Pontius Pilate; for our sakes, he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane about facing the cross but accepted the will of his Father. For our sakes, Jesus felt forsaken. Last week I invited people to claim the words of the famous hymn “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Declare it today too as we sing it. In the midst of life, be anchored to Christ.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 16, 2019