Monday, July 21, 2014

Sermon – “This grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1-10)


On the afternoon of Thursday, 5 August 2010, miners and technicians working 2300 feet below the surface in the San José mine in Chile heard an ominous rumbling. In an instant they knew that they were trapped. The 121-year-old mine was located in an area of geological instability and had a history of safety violations and accidents, including two deaths and the entrapment of seventy miners only four years previously.
On the surface it was assumed that the workers had probably not survived the collapse or would starve to death before they were found, if ever. However, a huge outpouring of concern both within Chile and around the world prompted the government to become involved in the search and rescue effort. Seventeen days after the collapse, a hand-written note in bold red letters was found taped to a rescuer’s drill bit: “We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Until that time the miners had been cut off entirely, surviving only on dwindling rations.
A vital link was established through a borehole the diameter a grapefruit. However, it would take another eight weeks and the concerted efforts and expertise of a multinational, multidisciplinary team before all the men were finally brought to the surface. It is estimated that, as the thirty-three emerged from the mine, more than a billion viewers were watching on from around the world.
Now I want you to take a moment to imagine yourself as one of those miners. Imagine first of all the hopelessness of being trapped by a rockslide nearly half a mile underground with no way of escape, no one to hear your desperate cries for help. Imagine, two weeks later, hearing the rat-a-tat of drills and then seeing one bit as it pokes through through the rock face. Imagine, after eight weeks of waiting, the anticipation as slowly, gradually you are hoisted to the surface. Imagine standing for the first time in the open air, breathing in its freshness, seeing the twinkling of the stars, and being embraced by family and friends you thought you never would set eyes upon in your life again. In a spiritual sense, the experience of those miners is a kind of parable of what Paul is describing in the opening verses of chapter 5 of Romans.
For the first two and a half chapters, Paul has been relentless in driving home the point that each of us, left to ourselves, is entrapped and enslaved by the darkness of sin. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God” (3:10,11). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are the miners, trapped in the mine. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
However, God has graciously come to our rescue. He has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has justified us, redeemed us, atoned for us. Forgiven, freed and reconciled, we now stand and breathe in the fresh air of his grace. So it is that Paul writes in verse 2 of “this grace in which we stand”—I believe with arms wide open, inhaling into our lungs the freshness of the Holy Spirit. It puts into my mind that iconic opening scene in The Sound of Music. The camera pans over a fresh green meadow surrounded by the grandeur of the Austrian Alps. Then it circles in on Julie Andrews as she bursts into song: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” In Paul’s words once again, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Perhaps a better translation of that word “boast” would be “rejoice”, “exult”, “revel”. The mood of this passage is one of exuberant joy, the joy that Jesus promised no one can take from us.

Peace

The first element of this new environment as Paul describes it is peace. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Perhaps it is the influence of the New Age movement or of Eastern religions, but when we think of peace on a personal level today, I suspect that what comes to most people’s minds is inner tranquility, sitting in a lotus position and quietly chanting, “Om.” For such people finding peace involves retreating into the inner world of the spirit, escaping from the distractions and the negativity of the world around us.
By and large when the Bible uses the word “peace”, however, that is not what it is referring to. For one thing, the biblical authors were not so naïve as to think that we could ever find peace within ourselves. Speaking for myself, my own experience more resembles the words of Charlotte Elliott’s hymn. When I look inside myself I find that I am “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without…” Not that there are not times when we need solitude and when it can be a healing experience for us. But that is not the path to the peace that Paul is writing about here.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about this in his little book Life Together, when he wrote,
Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.[1]
In the Bible, peace is a relational word. It almost invariably refers to peace between people. Thus to have peace is to be reconciled. It is to be in a healthy relationship with another person. And so we find spiritual peace not by retreating into ourselves, but by turning to God. We remember Jesus’ words that we read in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago, “Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28,29).
Ultimately, however, that peace has been made possible not by our coming to God but by his coming to us. We were too weak to do anything about our condition, as Paul reminds us in verse 6. The word can be translated “sick”, “feeble”, “powerless”. As one of our Prayer Book collects reminds us, “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Or as we once confessed in the old service of Morning Prayer, “There is no health in us.” And as we have heard already in the preceding chapters of Romans, we were trapped and enslaved by our own sin. In our rebellion we had become God’s enemies. So it is that God himself has taken the initiative. As Paul writes elsewhere, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” “He himself is our peace,” and “he has made peace through the blood of his cross”. All that is left to us is simply to trust him.

Hope

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But that is not all. Paul declares that we also boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God.
Viktor Frankl was one of those few who survived the Nazi death camps of World War 2. Immediately after his experience, in 1946, he wrote a book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, which has since become a classic. His central observation was that it was those who saw meaning in life, in other words those who had hope, who were the most likely to survive. This comes out especially in an incident he relates after a particularly punishing day.
Our senior block warden … talked about the many comrades who had died in the last few days, either of sickness or of suicide. But he also mentioned what may have been the real reason for their deaths: giving up hope. He maintained that there should be some way of preventing possible future victims from reaching this extreme state. And it was to me that the warden pointed to give this advice… I said that … whoever was still alive had reason for hope… I also told them that … I had no intention of losing hope and giving up. For no man knew what the future would bring, much less the next hour… Then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades … that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death… They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning… And finally I spoke of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. It was in the nature of this sacrifice that it should appear to be pointless in the normal world, the world of material success. But in reality our sacrifice did have a meaning… The purpose of my words was to find a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in that practically hopeless situation.[2]
Now Frankl was an existentialist. He did not acknowledge the existence of God or of any kind of hereafter. His hope was pinned to earthly goals, worldly realities. The hope that Paul writes about, on the other hand, is a “hope in sharing the glory of God”, a hope, he says that “does not disappoint us”. It is a hope that enables us not only to survive, but even to triumph in our sufferings. The word translated “sufferings” has to do with being squeezed in, what we might call living in a pressure cooker. What he says is that that pressure does not crush us. Instead, it only makes us stronger, producing endurance. And that endurance in turn issues in character. I would prefer to translate that word with something like “genuineness” or “authenticity” or “integrity”. In fact it is used for the testing of metals in a furnace, and hence Eugene Petersen renders it “the tempered steel of virtue” in his translation in The Message. We find something very similar in the First Letter of Peter, where we read,
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6,7)
And out of all of this, says Paul, arises hope. Yet while suffering, endurance and character may provide the context of hope, they are not its foundation. What truly gives us hope is our experience of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Love

Paul speaks about that love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And what a grace it is that we should be able to experience and feel that love within our very selves!
Ultimately, however, that love is measured not by our personal experience, powerful as that may be, but by the cross. It is in the cross that we see the full extent of God’s extraordinary love. It is rare, Paul says, that someone would give their life for a good person. But God’s love is such, that even though we had rebelled from him, even though we may have turned our backs on him and cursed him, he gave his Son to die for us. It is from the cross we learn that there is no one who is outside the extent of God’s love, no one who cannot be brought into his saving embrace.
It is this unquenchable, indefatigable love that we see in the cross and that has come to us through the Holy Spirit. It is this love that gives us hope, that is the source of our joy and exultation. Let us humbly yield to it and breathe it in deeply so that it suffuses and enlivens the whole of our being.




[1]     page 77
[2]     pages 102-105

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