Preached on 15 June 2008 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
You can listen to a second-service version of this sermon by clicking here …
As some of you will know, last September Yvonne and I went to Rome for the very first time … And we saw the lot! We saw the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. We saw St Peter’s. We saw the Colosseum, and the Pantheon, and the Circus Maximus. We saw the Forum. And it was an altogether unforgettable experience! But strange to think that, as we stood near the Forum, we were probably standing within a quarter of a mile of the very houses in which, in AD 54, Christians were crowded together, listening to what we know as Paul’s Letter to the Romans, under the very nose of the Emperor Nero, reclining on a golden couch and sipping wine in his marbled palace just up there, above them, on the Palatine Hill.
At that time, the church in Rome was very small – probably no bigger than our congregation here in St James; though of course the church in Rome then, ironically, had no church building. (Now it has hundreds!) And even then Rome itself was enormous – a city of a million people at the very heart of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. But even so, this small band of Christians, living near the Tiber, were taking a big risk in being present when this letter of Paul’s was being read aloud to them; for the letter was just about as subversive as a letter can be.
As I said, Nero is the Emperor, and he, like August Caesar and all emperors since, has the title “Son of God.” He is the one hailed as “Saviour of the world” and temples have been built in his honour in every major city from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. In those temples, sacrifices are offered to Nero every day. Prayers, too, are offered up to him before every public meeting, banquet, or theatre performance. And every year, on his birthday, throughout the empire, the “gospel” or “good news” is proclaimed that “Nero is Lord” and that he is still bringing peace to his people. It is said by some to be “peace by the blood of the cross,” for anyone who dares oppose the might of Rome is pretty quickly nailed to one! From Britain in the west to Palestine in the east; through Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey; and even in North Africa, the cross is the very symbol of empire for it speaks of the naked might of Rome.
But then comes this letter from Paul, the great apostle … and it is dynamite. Jesus is the Son of God, he says … not Caesar. The gospel is not that Nero is the saviour of the world … Jesus is the Saviour of the world. Jesus is Lord, not Nero. Jesus is the one who brings peace by the blood of the cross … And he brings it not by nailing people to a cross but by being nailed to it himself. From here on in, says Paul, the cross is not the symbol of empire, standing for the naked might of Rome. No, it is the symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, standing for the naked love of God, shown in a naked, bleeding Christ.
You can almost hear the little crowd of Christians saying to the reader, “Shhhh … not so loud. Keep your voice down.”
But we, thank God, don’t have to keep our voices down – though maybe if we understood Paul’s letter more clearly and lived it out more closely, we would have to learn to keep our voices down. So, for the time being, we can talk as loudly as we like about Jesus being Lord, Jesus being Saviour, and Jesus bringing “peace by the blood of the cross”. And indeed that is what the extract from the letter to the Romans that we had read to us this morning is all about. “Therefore,” says Paul, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:1).
Now I want to say, “Isn’t that wonderful?” because it is. But I have my suspicions that many of you might be struggling to agree with me … not because you’re a bit dim or anything like that, but just because you can’t really attach much meaning to the words that Paul is using. You can’t as they say “get your heads round them” and so you cannot see the wonder that lies behind them.
But it wasn’t like that for the Christians packed into some tiny house in the poorest district of Rome down by the Tiber who first heard this letter in the Rome of AD 54. For them, every word was charged with meaning and made this letter exciting, exhilarating, and mind-blowing stuff.
So let me try my best in the small amount of time I’ve got left this morning, to unpack just one or two of the words that cause us difficulty, so that we might perhaps capture just a little bit of the glory and wonder of the message that was heard by Justus the fishmonger, Priscilla the palace maid, Lucius the tanner, and Sextus the baths attendant, as these verses from Romans 5 were read to them.
First, the most difficult word of the lot … “justified”. There are other words too that we might not be quite sure about: “grace” for instance, even “faith”, but “justified” is the real problem.
We do, of course, use that word from time to time in ordinary English … Thursday night was a cold one, and as we were getting ready for bed, Yvonne said: “Do you think I’d be justified in having a hot water bottle tonight?” But all she meant by that was: “Do you think, given the drop in temperature, I have a good enough reason to take a hot water bottle to bed with me?” And we get the feeling that the word must mean something different from that when Paul uses it. And, yes, indeed it does.
For Paul and for his letter’s first hearers it simply meant “declared to be in the right”; and the image the word “justified” would have conjured up in the mind of every person in that crowded little room in ancient Rome would have been the image of the law court. Here is Sextus the bath attendant standing before the judge and there, alongside him, is Justus the fishmonger. Sextus has accused Justus of stealing a bracelet he’d left with his cloak in the changing rooms at the baths. Justus says he had nothing to do with it. He has a similar bracelet, yes, but he bought it from a bloke down the Forum. Sextus calls his witnesses. So does Justus. And the judge listens then gives his verdict: “You Justus are in the right. Sextus has wrongly accused you. You are justified in law. And because you are in the right, you are a righteous man. You leave here without a stain on your character.”
Does that help to make it clear?
OK. But it begs another question. If justification is being declared to be in the right by a judge in court, which court is it that Paul has in mind when he uses this language to the Christians in Rome?
Well, everyone hearing Paul’s letter knew the answer to that one … and indeed Paul had already spelled it out in the earlier part of the letter. It is the High Court of God on the Day of Judgement at the end of time. It is the court in which God himself will preside and hear the case against every human being who has ever lived.
Now there will, of course, be no wigs, no ushers, no block and gavel, no “Silence in Court”. This is picture language and don’t let us forget it or all our talk of justification and so on will soon begin to sound contrived and artificial. But there will be – there must be – this huge day of reckoning that we all really long for and cry out for when we read the morning by morning catalogue of horrors and atrocities in our daily newspaper.
The judgement – the very right and proper wrath of God – will be real. But to understand that reality, that judgement and to understand our place in it, let’s think of it, says Paul, as all taking place in a court of law. And if we do that, he says, the good news is this … that God has brought forward into the present from the end of time, for some people on this earth, the delivery of his verdict so far as those people are concerned. And it is a verdict that goes way beyond the “Not Guilty” of a British Court … it is a declaration of “Righteous!” It is God’s declaration, here and now, in advance of the Last Judgement, that certain people are “in the right” … totally, completely and indisputably in the right, and will remain so. And that is justification.
So who are these certain people and how do they receive this justification, this declaration that they are in the right with God and will remain so?
Paul says it’s “through faith”. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Through faith in what? Through faith in our own good lives, our own sinless thoughts and words and feelings and actions? Hardly. No-one, says Paul, no-one at all, is ever going to be justified – to get the declaration “You are in the right” – by virtue of their own natural and innate sinlessness or their own good lives.
Indeed, Paul has spent much of chapter three of his letter to the Romans showing that every last human being on earth has been infected with the disease of rebellion against God. We were made to love and worship and serve him but, at the very start of our history, we learned to suppress that calling and that truth. Our thinking became bent, our hearts became dark. We became centred on self. We let our appetites and passions control us and we pushed God out.
And God’s bottom line? “All have sinned.” Left to themselves, there is none righteous – there is no one in the right – no not one. So, no, we cannot be justified … be declared “in the right” … either now or in the future through our own sinlessness. It is not even a possibility.
So what is it through which we can be declared in the right? What is it that can bring us to that point here and now, before God the judge, where he can declare us absolutely A-OK, completely acceptable to him, completely in the right, justified?
Paul’s answer is clear. It is faith in what Jesus did on the cross when he took upon himself the sins of the world. Again, Paul has already dealt with this in depth earlier in his letter, but he sums it up here when he says in the last of the eight verses we had read to us this morning that we are justified through faith in the fact that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
How is that so?
Well let’s follow Paul’s teaching. Here was the human race, he says … including you and me … infected by the deadly disease of sin, moving inevitably towards that last judgement when God would have to give the verdict “In the wrong”, but then God himself did something on the cross that changed all that … did something that makes it possible for him to change that “in the wrong” verdict to an “in the right” verdict for anyone who is willing to turn to that cross with a believing heart and mind and take on trust … accept as a gift … what happened there.
For the cross, as Paul depicts it, is nothing less than a swap-shop of faith. On the cross, the God who has taken on flesh and become man in Jesus (and it is vital that we do not lose sight of that) says to you and me and every living human being: “Give me your sin and in exchange I’ll give you my righteousness … my own “in-the-right-ness”.
“On this cross,” says God, “I have borne for you, up front, in advance, all your sin and here I have suffered all the condemnation that it attracts. I did it even before you were born. I did it regardless of whether you would ever recognise your sin or not. I did it regardless of whether you would ever believe in what I’ve done for you. I did it because I love you.
“My taking on flesh and going to the cross and taking your sin there and dealing with it in my own flesh is a demonstration of just how very much I do love you. But it will have been for nothing if you will not accept it.
“All you have to do,” he says, “is to say yes to this exchange that I have made possible and take the substitution of my righteousness for your sin that is on offer. I’ve dealt with your sin here, all of it, past, present and future, and all you have to do is to reach out in faith and take my righteousness … my in-the-right-ness … as my free gift to you.”
And once I do that, the God who has dealt with my sin on the cross in the person of Jesus, the Saviour, places me before himself as God the Judge, looks at my now-sinless state, and declares me in the right, now and forever. Justified, through faith.
No wonder Paul says that the consequence is peace with God. “Therefore,” he says, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” It’s what the hymn calls “blessed assurance”.
Let me give you an illustration from today’s world that may help you to see what Paul is getting at. Two or three years ago we went on holiday to Crete with the Travel Club of Upminster and something very unusual happened. At our welcome meeting with the rep just after we had settled in to the apartment and begun our holiday she said, “Give me your tickets for getting home and tell me what seats you want and I’ll pre-board you.” So she took our tickets away and came back a day or two later with our actual boarding cards. “Now you don’t have to queue up with everyone else,” she said. “Or go through all the question and answer stuff. Just hand your bags in at the airport and go straight through to Departures.”
How lovely it was to approach the end of our holiday with the assurance that holding those boarding cards in our hands gave us. What lack of anxiety about the queues and all the airport hassle. What peace!
Well justification is a bit like that. It is God given us our boarding card in advance. It is him saying “Welcome on board” before it is even time for us to fly. A boarding card declares you have the right (there’s that word again) to get on board the plane; and in “justifying” us right now, God is declaring that we have the right to be in his new world forever and ever. What peace, says Paul. What peace!
And what grace! The same faith that enables God to justify us gives us, says Paul, “access to this grace in which we now stand”. But what is grace and how do we stand in it? Is it like a bus shelter … or a bathroom shower perhaps?
Well, neither of those is such a bad analogy. As Paul uses it, grace is a quick way of saying “God’s love” … But not God’s love as some kind of distant, benign goodwill towards us. No … God’s love dealing with sin and coming to the rescue of helpless humanity and redeeming the whole of creation from the mess that sin has made of it. And Paul is saying in these verses that when we come to the cross and accept what God did there in the person of Jesus, we are putting ourselves bang, slap in the middle of that love and ensuring that that is where we shall forever remain.
Do you grasp something now of just how good this good news is?
Ten years after the Christians in Rome received this letter, a fire started in Rome in the shops clustered around the Circus Maximus. Many Romans lived in wooden houses so the fire spread quickly, and soon it destroyed a large part of the city including Nero’s palace. Some of the population held Nero responsible – Nero fiddling while Rome burned – so, to shift the blame, Nero targeted the Christians. Some were thrown to the wild dogs to be savaged to death, others were crucified, and yet others were covered in tar and set alight to burn as torches in Nero’s garden. And among them, no doubt, were some of those who heard this wonderful letter of Paul’s read aloud in AD 54.
Did Paul know that was coming? Probably not. But he did know that Christians were not going to be exempt from having a rough time in life, so in our reading today he not only wrote of the peace that comes by justification through faith but he also wrote this: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Hard times will come. We feel that deeply this weekend when we think of poor Betty. But we have this confidence … this hope that will not disappoint us. We stand firmly in grace … in the invincible active love of God. We look to the cross and the empty tomb. And we rejoice in the fact that we have been justified through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have our boarding cards.