William Loader says that Paul emphasizes that nothing should clutter the simplicity of our relationship with God. There are no hidden hurdles that we must clear or qualifications we must achieve. It is an unconditional love which greets us – long before we are even able to assess ourselves. So here is where it gets tricky. When someone offers you that kind of relationship, it can be very threatening, because the invitation is to be loved for who you are, not for who we are trying to be or for the image we are trying to hide behind.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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. Romans 5: 1-5 New Revised Standard
Of all of Paul’s writings Romans embodies the fullest and most balanced treatment of his theology. While it is presented as a letter it is, in fact, a systematic and formal exposition of the “Gospel according to Paul”. Paul’s gospel doesn’t contain an eschatology – a so called end times perspective, a Christology or a theory of atonement. But it does establish the central facts, truths and experiences without which Christianity cannot exist. For Paul there is only one doctrine, justification by faith. As one writer put it, that was not part of his gospel, that was the whole of it. Luther, in time will become Paul’s clearest interpreter. Having not visited Rome before he wrote Romans, Paul had no distinct idea of his audience. He addresses his readers as if they were Gentiles. He argues with them as if they were Jews.
David Bartlett thinks that our generation has a better chance of understanding what Paul is saying since “access” has become such a key element in our world. How many know the access code on the office door of this building? At our computers the noun turns into a verb: “I need to access that file.” When I am getting my email and my finger or my memory slips as I try to type in my password I am denied access. Many of us have different passwords for our health care accounts, our on-line banking, and the on-line businesses from whom we order books, CDs, even fresh fruit. Paul wrote for a world in which people were desperately trying to find the passwords that would give them access to God. Some thought that careful obedience to the law of Moses was the key. Others thought that civic virtue was the key. Still others tried to placate God by the breadth of their philosophical knowledge or rely on ancient sacrificial rites. Paul’s astonishing claim is that there is only one password we need to remember: the Lord Jesus Christ and that in him everyone has access to grace. And suddenly the entire picture is reversed. It is not that we are striving to reach God, it is that God is striving to reach us—grace. It is not that we use Jesus to attain God’s mercy, it is that God sends Jesus to enact the mercy that God has intended from the very beginning of time. No wonder the Greek speaking world was ready to embrace the simple Gospel according to Paul.
Grace, however, is not only the activity of God in Jesus Christ that reaches out to include everyone (in Paul’s case, especially both Jews and Gentiles.) Grace is also our sanctuary – as Paul wrote: “This grace in which we stand.” God’s goodness to us surrounds us and upholds us and defines who we are. Our lives are shaped by a gift we can never achieve and can only receive. So, being in God’s grace is a matter that must be taken on faith.
In the verses preceding our selection for today Paul makes certain that we have a clue to what the whole idea of faith means. He plays a rather earthy Jewish card by using Abraham and Sarah as his illustration. The story is that God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. But time had done its thing to Abraham. Abraham believed that in so far as his fathering anything, he was dead. And not only that, Sarah too had aged out of the maternity business. Biologically both of them were ‘dead’ and yet there was this unfulfilled promise. And lo and behold they conceived and bore a child, new life, through whom God’s promise was brought to fruitfulness. From death came life.
Then Paul points to Jesus. Jesus was murdered. He was dead. When dead he was buried. But, lo and behold, from death came life. The argument Paul makes is that we too are all dead in so far as our relationship with God is concerned. He documents that by asking his readers to consider their own behavior. But because of God’s grace, as exemplified by Abraham and Sarah and demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which opens access to what the New English Bible calls, (I really love this) ‘the realm of God’s grace’ where in our relationship to God is restored. We can enjoy peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And what is even more interesting is that what counts is not so much our access to God as God’s access to us. It is not that we reach longingly toward heaven but that heaven is reaches longingly to us. It is not that we are good enough or wise enough or obedient enough to gain God; it is that God has gained us for God’s own self.
William Loader says that Paul emphasizes that nothing should clutter the simplicity of our relationship with God. There are no hidden hurdles that we must clear or qualifications we must achieve. It is an unconditional love which greets us – long before we are even able to assess ourselves. So here is where it gets tricky. When someone offers you that kind of relationship, it can be very threatening, because the invitation is to be loved for who you are, not for who we are trying to be or for the image we are trying to hide behind. Dropping the mask and the coping strategies can be a long and difficult process. Trusting ourselves to let ourselves be loved is a choice to be vulnerable where we may have collected many bad experiences. It is often hard to allow ourselves to be loved. Paul has been demolishing every claim to add something as a condition on the basis of which the love would flow. Nothing is required, but acceptance of the love offered: taking it on faith. In the previous chapter he has argued that Abraham showed such faith and God declared: that’s the right kind of relationship; that’s what counts as righteousness or goodness.
And Paul tells us what the life looks like that is grounded in God’s grace. It is not usually marked by earthly success and most certainly not blessed by earthly prosperity. Far more often it is marked by suffering. It is, after all, a Christ-shaped life that lives in grace. But suffering bears fruit of its’ own or better, grace bears fruit through the suffering. Paul’s litany of the gifts of grace is a kind of sketch of moral and spiritual development for the person grounded in the grace of God. Start with suffering and move to endurance; from endurance comes character, and character produces hope. Ethicists are much committed to helping us think about “character” ethics these days. Paul would say that we can be pretty sure someone has the character thing right if she lives in hope.
So it only makes sense that Paul claims that this kind of relationship brings peace. If we were dependent on constant renegotiation, like some perpetual spiritual audit to maintain the same quality of relationship we would be far from peace. The peace would end up being our own achievement. Not so for Paul. The ground of the peace of which he speaks is access. That means God’s access to us and our access to God’s grace and compassion. It is full and generous and adequate. It is the grace and compassion which addresses our true self – so it is not only forgiving and comforting, but also encouraging and challenging. We will find ourselves sometimes rejecting such grace and choosing our old strategies to establish our self worth. It is possible to hate love – even kill it, precisely because it addresses us as we really are. Paul’s spirituality stands and falls by this understanding of God’s compassion. It is the basis of his present confidence and also of his hope for the future. For Paul one’s sense of self is closely connected to one’s relationship with God and also one’s relationship with others. We have been justified, set in right relationship with God. It’s 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.
Isn’t this the God that Jesus came to reveal. And to live in confidence that God grace fills all the world’s time: past, present and future, is to experience the peace that Paul speaks of in the first verse. 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, 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? Maybe it is because we have confused God’s love for us with the absence of suffering. Israel knew such confusion, safely delivered from Egypt but wandering in the wilderness, and not yet home. The churches to which Paul ministered were threatened by such confusion not only in Rome but also in Corinth. Paul does not let his hearers imagine that difficulties are a contrary witness to God’s promises. 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. Rather we survive them by growing in our hope, appreciating difficulties for what 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.
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 passion for justice. God’s grief at the gap between humanity and God’s own self has been reconciled.
Richard Foster wrote that “… we need to understand clearly the daring goal of the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. And I must begin by stating flatly what that goal is not: The goal of salvation is not to get us into heaven. Properly understood, heaven is not a goal at all, but a destination. Heaven is vitally important, and it is part of the package, if you will, but it must never be the center of our attention. Heaven is only a glorious by product of something far more central. Salvation is a life, and when we have this life, … physical death becomes merely a minor transition from this life to greater life. Since, in Christ, we become unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe, we can look forward to the greater expression of this life in heaven, but our focus should be upon the new order of life we now have in Jesus Christ. The real issue is not so much us getting into heaven as it is getting heaven into us.”