A sermon preached on June 1, 2008 based upon Romans 1:16 – 17; 3:22b – 28 and Psalm 46, entitled, “Hard Truths to Swallow.“
There are two very big ideas being put forth by the Apostle Paul in the words we just heart from his letter to the Romans, both of which are at the heart of Christianity, and both of which can be mighty tough to swallow.
The first is this: We are all sinners. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. Which in turn means there really is NO distinction that can be made between people as to who are the “good people” and who are the “bad,” or even who is “better than” somebody else.
If any of us were to stand in the direct presence of the Holy God, any notion we had been holding onto of being one of the “good guys” — one of the ones who have lived a good life as opposed to those who didn’t — any such notion would be absolutely obliterated. We would suddenly and painfully become aware of the depths of our self-centeredness, the extraordinary lengths to which we had gone throughout our lives to try and make self-centered actions and beliefs seem like they weren’t self-centered.
This is, as I said, tough stuff to swallow. You can try as best you can to live by a moral law — you know, follow the ten commandments and keep the golden rule — but, Paul is saying, our best attempts at this will still fall way short of living the life for which we were created. Which is to say that the power of what is called “sin” in our lives is so persistent, so subtle, that in the end, it will use our attempts to do good as an opportunity to slip in a more insidious kind of sin in the form of self-righteousness and a blindness to the destructive consequences of our self-righteousness.
And lest we think Paul is imposing this idea onto Jesus, we find Jesus putting forth the very same idea in his little parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector going up to the Temple to pray, where the Pharisee who has worked very hard to keep the Law thinks himself so much better than the tax collector.
So in a sense, what is being said here is that we can’t win. No matter how hard we try, we are going to sin, we’re going to fall way short of the “glory of God.”
Well, that certainly sounds like depressing and discouraging news that will end up leading us to hate ourselves.
As I said, this is hard stuff to swallow.
If this were the only idea being put forth here by Paul, we would indeed be well advised to avoid hearing it, even if it were true.
But there is a second idea, which also, in itself, can be pretty tough to swallow, but which, in order to be fully appreciated, has to be taken hand in hand with the first idea.
And it is this: that in the end, “salvation,” which means “being made right with God” — “being at peace with God” — isn’t based upon whether we succeed in living the life that God intended for us to live. (Which is fortunate indeed, since, as we said no one comes close to truly succeeding in this regard.)
What Paul is saying here is that salvation, in the end, is a gift. It is “grace.” It’s not something we can ever earn by successfully keeping the Law — by working hard to be good.
It’s a gift, pure and simple. It is the mind-blowing good news that God truly cherishes us, chaotic mess though we may be, and that God forgives us, makes us right with God’s self, despite all the lengths to which we push God out of our lives and attempt to take over the center place ourselves.
Now in order for this “salvation” to effects us experientially on a level that truly impacts our life, it requires that we receive the gift, and the receiving of the gift is what Paul refers to as “faith.”
For Paul, the discovery of this gift came when he encountered Jesus, and specifically the mystery of Jesus’ humiliating death on the cross. For Paul, this is where the floodgates of grace open up. It turned Paul’s view of the world upside down. Up until that moment of amazing grace, the fact that Jesus had ended up on a cross like the lowest of the low was something shameful. It was failure, it was defeat, it was humiliation. Now, through the eyes of faith, Paul sees the death of Jesus on the cross as the very fountain of grace.
Oftentimes the full meaning of the Gospel cannot penetrate us until life brings us to our knees. This is how it happened for Paul, who had been the proud and self-righteous Pharisee until that moment he discovered that everything he had been about in his life had been barking up the wrong tree.
This is also how it happened for Peter, who declared the night that Jesus was betrayed that though the other disciples might fall away, he never would, only to discover that very night just how very flawed he in fact was.
And it’s how it happened for the founder of what became the Methodist Church, one John Wesley, who spent his early adult years busting his butt trying to live a superior, righteous life, only to make an absolute wreck of his life in the two years he spent in the colony of Georgia. It was only then, a broken and humbled man, that at a prayer meeting on a street called Aldersgate, he could experience his heart strangely warmed, as the gift of God’s love penetrated the depths of his soul.
And it’s the same truth discovered routinely in Alcoholics Anonymous, where people discover the truth that they have been avoiding and acknowledge their helplessness to fix the mess they’ve made of their lives.
The thing abot life is that sooner or later it knocks us off our feet. As the 46th psalm alludes to, inevitably there comes the time of serious trouble when the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, and the waters roar and foam, and we cannot help but tremble in our boots from the tumult of it all.
When this happens, there are basically two ways our life can play out. We can end up bitter, hardened, cynical, and judgmental, which is another way of saying, we can lose our soul.
The other way it can play out is that in time the truth to which Paul was alluding begins to make sense to us on a gut level. We are humbled. We discover ourselves loved despite confronting much that seems unlovable within us. We become merciful in a way we could not be merciful before. We shed our self-righteousness, and embrace the mercy of God.
We find in God our refuge and strength, recognizing that our own strength wasn’t the refuge we had wanted to believe it was.
The sacrament of holy communion which we are about to share together is all about these two hard to swallow truths. We come to this table not because we have somehow earned the right. Hardly. We come to this table because there is a gift offered here that we have come to realize we need above all else.
Psalm 46:1 – 3
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.