I wonder how you like to eat your meals. Are you the kind of person who likes to eat each thing on it’s own, in turn, or do you load a bit of everything on your fork for each mouthful? Do you eat your favourite thing first or leave it to last? Put a roast dinner in front of me, and I’ll eat the peas, then the carrots, then the potatoes, then the meat. One thing at a time, leaving the best bit to last. Over the last couple of months we’ve been watching the “Best Home Cook” TV programme, and seeing all these elaborately constructed dishes, I’m often left thinking about how I’d really want to deconstruct them in order to eat them.
This morning’s reading from Romans is a bit like one of those carefully constructed dishes, with different layers and complimenting flavours. I’m not planning to pull it apart, but I am hoping that as we look at it, and notice those layers and flavours, so our appreciation of it might grow, and we’ll be nourished and delighted by it.
So, the first thing to notice, is where we are in the feast of the book of Romans. The first course has already been served and eaten, in chapters 1-4, and the next main course – chapters 6-8 is on its way. In chapter 5 we are served dishes that have some of the flavours of the previous course – ideas of human sinfulness and the justification that God has worked for us, and some flavours of the course to come – such as the new life we have in the Holy Spirit. If provides both a summary of teaching already shared and an introduction to the next stage of Paul’s argument.
So, let’s look at the dish we have been served in verses 1-11. The first thing to notice is that the top and bottom layers are made of the same thing. Maybe like the pastry case of a pie. The first verse talks about justification and peace with God. Verses 9-11 also talk about justification and reconciliation, with a bit more detail, but the basic ideas are the same – reconciliation is the process by which our peace with God is made.
As we notice this, it is also worth noticing the tense which Paul chooses to use. We are justified, we have peace, we have received our reconciliation. These are all things that God has done in the past, and which have a real affect now, for those who choose to follow Christ. There is a deep assurance in this. We do not have to earn this, worry about whether we’re good enough or deserve it, God has done it – we are justified and we have been reconciled. It’s done.
When we talk about peace here, it is not so much feeling at peace, but the objective fact of being at peace with God. It might be hoped that one would follow the other – but just because we don’t feel peaceful doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not reconciled with God. On the flip side, just because we feel at peace doesn’t necessarily mean that we are reconciled with God. Part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to comfort the troubled and to trouble the comfortable, something that we might want to reflect on as we go through Lent.
I said a moment ago that I think that having peace and being reconciled are basically the same thing. Well, in contrast reconciliation and justification are different things – they are different flavours. Related and complimentary perhaps – but different. A bit like orange and lemon perhaps. Neither are they different layers in the dish – it’s not like there’s a layer of justification and then a layer of reconciliation. Maybe we should think of a pastry layer made of pastry into which orange and lemon zest have been grated.
Justification is a formal, legal term. It’s about the demands of the law being met. When I’m justified in the court of heaven it’s “just as if I’d” never broken the law. I’m declared innocent, free to go. But a judge can do that in a court with no personal relationship with the defendant. That’s where reconciliation comes in – that’s the relational, personal process, that restores the relationship between me and God. Both are needed, and they happen at the same time, but they are distinct.
So we’ve got this orange and lemon flavoured pastry – top and bottom. What are we going to find in the pie?
In the next layer, vv-2-5, it seems to me that the main flavours that come through are hope and rejoicing.
In verse 2 we see a very short chain between rejoicing and hope. Knowing ourselves to have been justified and reconciled, we know that we have been brought into the presence of God through Jesus, and so, with the assurance of that strong foundation, we look forward to the time when we will fully share the glory of God, and we rejoice in the hope of that. This is not the wishy-washy, probably won’t happen, but it would be nice if it did “hope”. This is full bore well founded, confident expectation of something promised by someone we trust, Christian hope. This is hope solid enough to dance on. This isn’t “chocolate flavour” hope – this is 80% cocoa solids, rich, dark chocolate hope.
In verses 3-5 we see a longer chain between rejoicing and hope, but the connection is still strong. We know we have strong foundations in what God has already done, and we look forward to what God is going to do, but we still have to live with the reality of life today, which can be hard. Paul knew this, he’d been imprisoned, beaten up, shipwrecked. If it could go wrong, it had, for Paul. So he is well qualified to comment when he says that we rejoice in our sufferings, because we can see that they help us to grow in endurance, which produces character, which leads to hope – which does not disappoint- because it is founded on what God has done – which is to pour love into us and to give us the Holy Spirit.
It’s not easy, though, is it, to rejoice in our sufferings. The Israelites definitely didn’t find it easy. They were parched and thirsty. They had escaped from slavery in Egypt, but they were stuck in the desert, they were scared, and they didn’t have enough water. So they grumbled and threatened Moses. God, in grace, met them in their grumbling and provided water for them. Despite this, they didn’t really trust God, and the theme of grumbling would come up repeatedly on their journey through the desert.
When we’re going through it, we don’t feel like rejoicing – we feel like curling up into a ball and wishing it would all just stop. Or we get angry at the injustice of it all. Paul encourages us to lift our heads, to look beyond the immediate situation and to focus on Jesus, to receive God’s love and to trust that in the end all will be well, however bleak it feels at the moment. He then goes on to remind us why we can do this. In the next layer he reminds us where we’ve come from, and how much God has already done for us, and on the basis of that history calls us to choose to hope.
This next layer is one of contrasting flavours, both of them bitter in their own way, but somehow blending to produce something rich and hopeful.
The first flavour is that of the situation that we were in before we were justified and reconciled. See how the list of charges against humanity in its fallen states builds in a crescendo. Weak, ungodly, sinful, enemies of God. Note also how Paul includes himself in these descriptions, he’s not pointing fingers, he’s inviting us to join him in being real about our own shortcomings, an important theme in Lent.
We were weak: lacking in strength, unable to do good even if we wanted to, our bodies subject to illness, decay, and death. We were ungodly: we tried to live independently of God, refusing to live as creatures of the Creator, or as subjects of the King. We were sinners: we did not know, value, or keep God’s moral law or commands. To top it all off – the climax – we were enemies of God. We rebelled actively against God, saw God as our enemy and by our actions and attitudes came to deserve God’s enmity. A bitter flavour indeed.
But, paired with each of these escalating descriptions of humanity is the same declaration about God. It is there repeatedly. Christ died.
We were weak – Christ died
We were ungodly – Christ died
We were sinners – Christ died
We were enemies – the death of his Son – Christ died.
Christ’s death is a bitter thing, it was brutal, painful, and destructive. But it is also God’s sweet answer to the bitterness of our rejection of him. It is because of this death, and his resurrection, that we can be justified and reconciled. And so we arrive at the top layer, tasting those flavours of restored relationship once more.
As we sit back, having enjoyed the whole pie, I wonder what flavours or textures will stay with you into the week. As I’ve been chewing over this passage this week, a couple of things have struck me particularly, and I’m going to finish by sharing them with you.
Firstly, “God helps those who help themselves” is a deeply unchristian proverb. God helps those who could not help themselves, but were and are completely helpless. The first step to receiving that help is to realise that we can’t help ourselves.
Secondly, as I was preparing for this morning, I came across this lovely phrase in one of the commentaries, that I invite you to meditate on in the coming week.
“peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing”