March 28th, 2010

God has turned his enemies into friends.

Romans 5:6-11

March 28, 2010


As we begin today, I want to ask for some interaction.  Take out a piece of paper, and write down the following ten pairs.  Then circle your self-description or preference on each pair.  This is not something I will ask you to share.  Try to choose for each item.  But if you don’t have a preference or can’t decide either way, don’t circle either one.

·         Carolina or Duke.

·         Pro-life or pro-choice.

·         Gossip or trustworthy.

·         Black or white.

·         Democrat or Republican.

·         Stingy or generous.

·         Universal healthcare:  for or against.

·         Anti-gay rights or gay advocate?

·         Fox News or CNN.

·         Honest or deceitful.

Now I want you to imagine a fictional person who checked off the opposite from you on every one of those polarities.  Maybe you don’t have to imagine, because you can put a real name and face to your opposite.  My name is fictional.

We will call your opposite “Robin.” Let’s say Robin just filled out the same list as you, and checked every single item opposite from you.  Robin is your enemy.  Now let me ask you some questions about Robin and you.

·         Would you invite Robin to lunch, one on one?

·         Would you hire Robin to work on your team?

·         Would you want Robin to attend your Sunday School class?

·         Could you pray for God to bless and prosper Robin?

·         If Robin were accused of a crime, would Robin be ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in your mind?

·         If Robin had financial problems, would you help?

·         If Robin deliberately hurt you, could you forgive…or forget?

·         Would you ever say to Robin, “I love you”?

·         Would you give your life to save Robin’s?

·         Would you give the life of your child to save Robin?

On the last point, probably none of us would say yes, even if Robin circled every item on the list the same as we did.

A big jump

In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus Christ died for us while we were God’s enemies.    Let’s unpack that.

You may have noticed that we made a big jump since last week.  We are encouraging the church family to read through the Bible in 2010, and our sermons are roughly corresponding to the Bible reading.

We interrupt these sermons for Holy Week.  It seemed inappropriate to choose a random Old Testament text and try to preach on the triumphal entry or the crucifixion this week, or the resurrection next Sunday.  So we just decided to jump over to the New Testament for a couple of weeks.  We will resume our “through the Bible” sermons after Easter with the life of Samuel.

We also have made a big jump by reading Romans 5 and skipping the first four chapters.  At least some of you are going to be thinking, “Well, I’m not God’s enemy.”  You might think differently if you read the first four chapters of Romans.

The Apostle Paul has been carefully building a logical argument since chapter one that goes something like this.  God’s wrath is being revealed against all kinds of wickedness – including idolatry, sexual immorality, greed, and murder.

All of us would agree, of course that “those people” deserve God’s wrath.  So Paul goes on to say that self-righteous people deserve God’s wrath as well – they just can’t see their own sin.  And since some of his readers were Jews, who considered themselves spiritually privileged, he includes them in the condemnation since they don’t keep the laws they profess to honor.

He closes that section with scathing quotes from the Old Testament: “There is no one righteous, not even one….There is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:10, 18).  Everyone should just shut up and remember our accountability to God (3:19).  “For all have sinned and are falling short of God’s glory” (3:23, paraphrase).

Then beginning in the middle of chapter 3, he shifts from the bad news to the good news – that God has found a way to eradicate that horrible record of wrong.  Paul’s word is “justified,” and his great biblical example is Abraham, who “believed God” so God considered him righteous (3).  That’s what “justified” means – that God sees me in Christ “just as if I’d” never sinned.

I want to focus on verses 6-11 of chapter 5, but it seemed odd to begin reading the text there, so we started at verse 1.  But I want to spend our time on verses 6-11, verse by verse.


“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (6).

Paul uses four words in verses 6-11 to describe our pre-Christian state, and two of them are in this verse.  The NIV translates them “powerless” and “ungodly.”

“Powerless” means weak, sick, helpless.  Benjamin Franklin said, “God helps those who help themselves,” but this word describes those who cannot help themselves.  I think of Hazel Shores, who is dying at Hospice, or Harold Adams up at Frye Regional Medical Center following a stroke, or Wayburn Clontz, suffering from dementia at the Lutheran Home.  When we were spiritually in that condition, Christ died for us.

“Ungodly” means more than just bad.  It describes those who willfully run from God.  The Message says “rebellious.”  It suggests those who think they’re better than God – who think they are God’s judge, who condemn him.

Paul is asking us to see ourselves in that condition – opposed to God and unable to help ourselves.  When we were in that condition, Christ died for us.

“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die” (7).

This is an interesting verse that has provoked considerable discussion, including at last week’s staff meeting.  Is Paul using “righteous” and “good” synonymously, as if to say, “Very rarely will anyone die for a good person, though some people will die for a good person.”

Or is there distinction and progression?  I think there is.  The main reason is that in the Greek there is a definite article before “good” and not before “righteous.”

So “a righteous person” is a random person who is known for keeping God’s laws – morally straight, the Boy Scouts would call him.  But “the good person” seems a little more definite.  This person is someone you know who does something noble or generous for you.

Try this for clarity:  “Very rarely will anyone choose to die for a righteous stranger.  If someone has been particularly good to you, you might consider it.”

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (8).

My Confirmation class will recognize this as one of the Bible verses they have to memorize.  Remember, the contrast is with the fact that you and I are highly unlikely to die for a righteous person or the person who has been good to us.

Earlier, Paul had described our condition outside Christ as “powerless” and “ungodly.”  Now he adds “sinners.”

“Sinners” is a word used in the New Testament with a snide, spiteful, and mean tone.  You draw it out and curl your nose.  “Ssssinnnnerrrsss.”  In the Bible, the “sinners” are tax collectors, prostitutes, and the heathen.  The word is not used of those who think of themselves as good people.

Who are those we consider “sinners” today?  Pedophile priests, Ponzi schemers, politicians and celebrities who cheat on their spouses, those who fly to Haiti not to help but to make a buck.  And, OK, this time of year, tax collectors.

Paul says you will never appreciate the death of Christ until you see yourself as one of the “sinners” for whom Christ died.  That’s how much he loves you.

“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him” (9).

“Much more” is one of the Apostle’s favorite expressions in Romans.  The rabbis of Paul’s day called this argument “light and heavy.”  If you like steak, how much more will you enjoy filet mignon?  If you are happy with $10, how much more will you celebrate $100? 

Having begun this letter to the Romans speaking of God’s wrath, Paul realizes that threat still hangs like a cloud over his readers.  But if Christ’s death justifies us, how much more will we be delivered from God’s wrath?

“For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more (there it is again), having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (10)

There is the fourth word that describes our pre-Christian state.  We were “powerless” and “ungodly” in verse 6.  We were “sinners” in verse 8.  Now Paul adds that we were “enemies.”

We don’t like to think of ourselves as God’s enemies.  It’s interesting to me when I get into some sort of arbitration situation.  The two most common examples are marriage counseling and some sort of dispute or bad blood between church members.  What inevitably happens is that both individuals inevitably assign bad motives, harmful words, and destructive actions to the other.  In other words, from both sides the perception is, “I’m the good person – that’s the enemy.”

In other words, we’re not used to thinking of ourselves as anyone’s enemy – much less God’s enemy.  Paul doesn’t want you walking out of here with your head hung low because you’re God’s enemy.  He wants you to be thinking of how much God loves you and what he did for you in the death of Christ.

But before you can really appreciate that, you have to own words like “powerless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “enemies” as applying to you.  Then it becomes that much more astounding that he would give the life of his Son for you.

“Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (11).

“Reconciliation” was a word Paul introduced in verse 10.  It was in Paul’s time, as it is now, an accounting term.  Two different records have to agree.  An exchange of product or service for cash has to balance.  To reconcile is to account for, to make consistent.  Something that was at odds is now in harmony.

When used of relationships, reconciliation is about rejoining in friendship.  Enemies are now friends.  That is what Christ accomplished for us, and that causes joy to well up inside us.  We smile, we sing, we laugh, we praise, we glory, we exult.  Nothing is better, spiritually speaking, than to realize that the wrath of God we deserved as his enemies has turned to justification as his friends.

Holy Week

Maybe you’re among those who doesn’t like thinking of yourself in the terms Paul uses in Romans 5 – powerless, ungodly, sinners, enemies.

As I have shared with you before, I was not a particularly diligent student in high school.  I had enough smarts to get B’s without trying too hard, and that’s mostly what showed up on my report card.  As far as I remember, I only got one D and one F.

It was 11th Chemistry.  The teacher told us at the beginning of the year that a major project would be due during the fifth 6-week grading period.  If we didn’t complete the project, we would get an F.  Further, there would be steps due all through the year toward the project, and our grades would decline through the year if we failed to complete the steps.

A procrastinator, I didn’t keep up with the steps.  And, as the teacher promised, I had a D on my report card the fourth 6-week grading period.  And it was too late to go back and get everything done.

I will never forget walking down the hallway toward my Dad’s room six weeks later.

“Did you bring home your report card?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I hope you brought up that D.”

“No, Dad, I didn’t.”

“Well, I hope it didn’t go down.”

“Yes, Dad, I’m afraid it did.”

I had no idea how Dad would respond.  But he did something worse than yelling at me.  He said nothing at all.  Nothing at that moment.  Nothing that night.  Nothing the next morning.

Until he dropped me off at school.  Just before I got out of the car, Dad handed me the report card, which he had signed, and said, “Son, we still believe in you.”

I got an A on the final six-week grading period, and an A on the final exam.

It’s noteworthy in the context of today’s text that one of my strongest memories of my father’s love as a teenager was when I least deserved it.  Love means the most when we are unworthy.

Paul doesn’t write Romans 5 so you are left with the thought, “I am SO bad.”  He writes Romans 5 so you are left with the thought, “God loves me SO much.  He gave his Son for me when I was THAT bad.”

His love motivates us to be the best we can be in gratitude.  Amen.

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