A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 2 ~ Romans 5:1-8
Here we go again. Yet another biblical text filled with really fantastic and heavy theological concepts that have, in my oh so humble opinion, have not been interpreted in the most helpful ways. (Did I manage to say I think they’re wrong without saying they’re wrong?)
I’m going to spend some time today dealing with reinterpreting a tiny little, innocuous looking three-letter word that may turn this passage upside down for some. That word is ‘for’.
I know. How can ‘for’ cause so much trouble? You’ll see!
But really this sermon isn’t about that – it’s about a five-letter word that we use all the time but might not realize just how powerful and paradigm-changing a word it is – not only way back in bible times but still today.
That word is ‘grace’.
Last Monday at The Porch (that’s our weekly bible discussion group on zoom – although tomorrow’s the last one until September) – anyway, I told the group that this passage is simply about grace.
Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace!
In fact, I told them to avoid all the confusion and take a black sharpie and just write the word ‘grace’ in giant letters right down the page because that’s all you really need from this passage.
So. What is grace?
The curious thing is that the biblical definition of the word is different than all the other ways we use the word.
We say grace at meals.
We say that a person who has impeccable manners has grace.
When someone gets extra time for something we call it a grace period. That’s actually the closest to the biblical meaning.
And when a person moves with elegance and flair we say they’re graceful.
And no, it wasn’t a typo in the sermon title, the bible says we’re all grace-full! F-U-L-L!
Ok, so that’s nice but it still doesn’t tell us exactly what we’re full of (so to speak).
My favourite way to explain grace is to say it’s a blessing given that you didn’t earn.
Grace is about experiencing God’s favour, but not having to do a single thing to merit it.
It’s just given.
Lavishly. Unfailingly. Overflowingly.
Until we’re grace-full.
A classic way to describe grace is to say that ‘grace keeps giving me things I don’t deserve’.
That’s close, but not great.
The problem is the word ‘deserve’. You deserve all kinds of things. Not material things, but important things – like honour, respect, to be valued for the sacred person you are.
Your innate sacredness deserves to be honoured.
But that’s just supposed to be proper human interaction. That’s on us, not God.
Every one of us deserves that sacred honour and respect from every one of us.
Grace, on the other hand, keeps giving me things I haven’t earned!
The distinction is vitally important.
And it’s a challenge for us, because it flat out goes directly against how we humans tend to operate in the world.
We think we have to earn everything.
God’s grace has been a freely bestowed gift from ‘the beginning’ and always. Grace didn’t start with Jesus – but he did preach about it all the time, even if he didn’t use that exact word all the time.
Grace is the gift of God’s loving Presence enfolding us and enlivening us – bringing peace, and wholeness, and healing, and light, and hope, and belonging, and acceptance, and all those great things that we count as the blessings of God’s love.
How did we get all those things?
Jesus said God just gives them – because God is love, so God loves.
In reality then, ‘gift’ is the wrong word: God doesn’t ‘give’ these things because they’re already all around you and within you – if you care to notice.
And Paul is trying to pick up that ball and run with it here in Romans 5.
He’s trying to teach the concept of ‘grace’ to an audience that is convinced they have to ‘earn’ access to God’s love – by keeping all the laws (either Jewish laws or Roman civic laws), or by philosophical knowledge (wisdom).
Grace isn’t something you can earn – because grace is a state of being.
Romans 5:1-2 (NRSV)
Therefore, since we are justified by faith (not by anything we’ve done, but by simply trusting in the life and way of Jesus and trying to align our lives with that Way) – through faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to (obtained awareness of) this grace in which we stand; and we [revel] in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
This grace in which we stand!
We’re standing in it.
We’re up to our ears in it.
We’re utterly immersed in it – in God’s grace.
Paul’s saying that we don’t have to strive to reach God – God is striving to reach us!
We spend so much energy trying to be good little girls and boys and persons to earn something that we’re already completely enfolded in.
We are now, and always have been, grounded in grace. Freely given, because God can be no other way. Amazing grace, indeed!
Grace embarrasses us, because we think we need to earn everything.
Jesus’ audience, and Paul’s audience lived in a paradigm where they thought you had to earn God’s favour.
It was a spiritual meritocracy.
Well friends, I’ve got news for you. In two thousand years of studying and savouring these teachings we’ve somehow managed to completely miss this point and we still live in a meritocracy.
Yes, even in church we still fall into this trap.
I hope and pray that people attend worship gatherings because they find them uplifting and helpful for noticing God’s Presence more fully, and not because we’re scoring points with God by performing rituals that we hope will please God.
If I preach about deepening our prayer life I fear it gets heard as “you’re not praying enough and God doesn’t like it!”
How pernicious is this performative sense rather than grace! Even our praying or church attending can feel ‘performative’ if we’re not careful.
When you understand that grace is our starting point, not something we achieve through earning it, then it radically shifts your understanding of theology, and you may need to do some reinterpreting of things you thought you knew.
For example. Romans 5:6-8
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God shows God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Ok, let’s take on that word ‘for’.
How does one interpret ‘Christ died for us’?
If you live in a spiritual meritocracy where you have to earn God’s favour, and you think you could never do that – that you’d need a super-human example to step in and earn it for you – then you might hear ‘for’ as ‘in the place of’ – as in, Christ died ‘instead of’ me, and that’s how I earned God’s favour.
But now that you know more about grace you can see that that just doesn’t make any sense.
There’s no need for earning God’s favour through anyone’s effort – not even Jesus’ – because you can’t earn something you’re already swimming in.
And here’s an even simpler argument.
The Greek word translated as ‘for’ here simply does not mean ‘instead of’ – at all.
There’s another very common and simple word for ‘instead of’ or ‘in the place of’ and Paul didn’t use it here.
He used a word that means ‘for the betterment of, for the benefit of’.
He isn’t saying that Jesus’ death earned us anything.
He’s saying Jesus’ faithfulness even unto death ‘showed’ or ‘revealed’ to us something that was for our betterment.
Granted, it’s a subtle nuance, and Paul is talking to people steeped in a performative meritocracy, so they can’t help but interpret Jesus’ death as performative on some level.
But I hope you can see deeper than that.
I hope you can see that everything about Jesus’ life and death were about revealing this grace in which we stand – not earning it.
And if we could awaken to that profound theological truth – that we are already loved, that we are already immersed in God’s Presence and shalom – that we are, in fact, grace-full – then that would be our ultimate betterment – ‘for’ us.
I need to say one more thing, and it’s really important.
I picked the New Living Translation of this passage for one reason – verse 2 – where instead of talking about ‘the grace in which we stand’ it translates it as:
this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand.
This place of undeserved privilege where we now stand.
Today, that phrase resonates deeply in all kinds of ways.
In these recent weeks we have been inundated with news stories about responses to pervasive racial injustice.
Despite the very real danger of Covid-19 infection the streets have been flooded with people willing to stand in that danger to lift up an even greater danger – the evil, the sin of racism.
If, like me, you’re a white person, then today you cannot avoid facing, with heightened awareness, the fact that because of our white-ness we are treated differently in the world.
In other words, despite this rampant culture of supposed meritocracy that we live in, the biggest single advantage that we as white people have is something that we could never earn, could never merit, but is just handed to us – often without us ever even realizing it – until now.
It’s impossible for me to think of grace as just a spiritual concept anymore.
Grace is an unearned benefit that I’ve been gifted with and may not realize I have, but I’m still immersed in it.
So too is my privilege as a white person.
And just as God’s grace embarrasses us with its overflowing goodness so too must our ‘white privilege’ embarrass us with its unearned benefits.
This place of undeserved privilege where we now stand.
Our response is not guilt.
Our response is awareness, and a commitment to doing our part to work toward a society where every single person experiences honour, and respect, and is valued for the sacred person they are. Everyone’s innate sacredness deserves (demands!) to be honoured.
Sadly, our systems of power say otherwise.
Our meritocracy says otherwise.
Our comfortable, embedded sense of how ‘things are fine because they’re fine for me’ says otherwise.
The cry in the streets is that ‘Black Lives Matter’.
It’s rising because our society and systems have said otherwise – whether we knew it or not.
We know now.
What will we do with that knowledge?
We aren’t called to proclaim that Black Lives Matter because we think it’ll score points with anyone.
We say Black Lives Matter because we have awakened to the grace in which we stand, and that awareness inspires us to love, love, love.
When we are confronted with such challenging truths about how the world is, and how we are, it can feel pretty crappy.
It’s hard to wrestle with big things like this.
Confronting privilege and working toward anti-racism is hard, personal work.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it.
But standing in God’s grace we are…changed, blessed, inspired.
And even in the midst of these unnerving realizations and awkward conversations
(Romans 5:3-5) We can rejoice, too…for we know that they help us develop endurance.
And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.
And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us – loves everyone , because God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with God’s love.
To fill our hearts with love.
To be grace-full.
That’s what it’ll take to change things.