Written by Pastor Ed
Romans – The Gift of Grace
July 20, 2014
Books of the Bible – Romans
I recall one evening while attending seminary, sitting in our living room being visited by a pastor and lay visitor from a little church just up the street from where we lived. After some small talk they posed the question they had come to ask, “If you died and stood before God, and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you say?”
Now they were looking for a very specific answer, and I’m not sure I satisfied them that evening. (This was the same pastor that I saw in the seminary library one day and he asked if I knew any good books where he could get sermon ideas from. I suggested the Bible was not a bad starting point.)
But while I may not have given the answer they were looking for that evening, some form of that question, “How do I get right with God?” has been around for a long time, and is answered in many different ways. It’s really the fundamental question of all religions, even the most primitive where sacrifices are made to please the gods.
The question is often put in the form, “Am I good enough to get into heaven?” And even if we don’t ask it overtly, we often try to live it out by trying to be good enough, or do enough. And this fundamental question is the basic one that Paul addresses in his letter to the Romans, which is our Book of the bible for today.
Paul’s letter is the first evidence we have of a church at Rome, a church not founded by Paul. In fact we’re not sure how the church began in Rome, although Rome was certainly a place where many travelers passed through, so it is perhaps not surprising that a church began there. From the evidence we have, the church at Rome was a mixture of Jew and Gentile and this caused some friction in the church.
As with most 1st century churches it had begun with Jews who came to claim Jesus as the Messiah. Then Gentiles had been converted and joined the church. One things we know about the Roman church was that the Jews, who were undoubtedly the leaders in the church, had been expelled from Rome for a period of time, and the Gentiles had carried on alone for a period. But at the time of this letter, probably in the late 50’s AD, the Jews were being allowed to return to Rome and this was creating some friction and some new questions that we will look at shortly.
In any case, now at the end of his third missionary journey, probably in Corinth, Paul writes to the Roman church partly to introduce himself and tell of his eventual coming, and partly to expound on the Gospel and the key theme of the letter found following his greetings, in verses 16-17 0f Chapter 1.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
We know that one of the issues in the early church was this fundamental question of how can we be good enough to please God. Was it by following the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament, or was it some other way? And Paul replies, “You’re actually asking the wrong question.”
To strive to be good enough will never get you right with God, says Paul. In fact, you can never be good enough, or do enough good works, or sacrifice enough, or do anything enough. Salvation, being right with God, is a gift from God. So the only question is, “Have you accepted the gift?”
Not only that, but it is not even that we go looking for God. Rather God has come seeking us, taking the initiative in Jesus Christ.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Rom. 5: 6-8)
And God’s love extends to all, not just to the “good enough.” Paul wants to make sure that the church at Rome, both Jews and Gentiles, know that God’s love is for all of them, and by extension to all of us. In fact, Paul says, God’s love is everywhere and nothing, not even death can separate us from God’s love. (Rom. 8)
Paul makes it clear that if it is a matter of being good enough, then no one can measure up. All of us have sinned, Paul says, and no matter how hard we try, we often end up doing the things we don’t want to do. Yet, even though that’s true, God has extended the gift of salvation to us. We call that gift “grace.” Grace is available to all, it can be received by anyone. No one can claim exclusive rights for the action is God’s. God gives the gift of grace to all humankind.
But that left a question for the church at Rome. If God’s grace was available for all and Gentiles could receive it in as full a measure as the Jews, who were God’s chosen people, then what did that mean for the Jews? Were they still somehow God’s chosen people? After all, the promises were to Abraham and all his descendants, weren’t they?
And so Paul addresses that issue in Chapters 9 to 11 of Romans and his answer has puzzled his readers ever since. For while Paul is not content to dismiss his brother and sister Jews, he is also clear that God’s people have been expanded far beyond simply the descendants of Abraham. And Paul is also clear that the Jews can no longer just depend on their ancestry for their relationship to God. This becomes a question even today as people debate whether the current state of Israel is part of God’s plan for the Jews. I think Paul would say, no. God’s people, whether Jew or Gentile, are not confined to any place. While the Jews may still be God’s people, based on the promises to Abraham, their boundaries have been expanded to include all God’s people, both Jew and Gentile.
Paul tries to be clear to the church at Rome that both Jew and Gentile share in God’s promise of grace, and even though the law was given to the Jews, it was really the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the faithful followers of the Old Testament that made them right in God’s eyes. And that grace was, and continues to be a gift from God, not something we earn.
So after Paul has expounded on God’s gift and made his point that both Jews and Gentiles are now a part of God’s plan, he goes on, beginning with Chapter 12 to talk about what we should do once we have received God’s gift.
There are, in fact several ways to receive a gift and to view the gift that God has given. One of the gifts that we got for our wedding was a silver piece called a silent butler. It was a decorative piece, unless you happened to be a smoker and then it could be used to go around and empty your ashtrays into. Now, needless to say, we received that gift, and thanked the people who gave it, but it was never used. For some time it was stuck away somewhere, and at some point I’m sure we gave it away. You see, even the most useful gift, if we don’t use it, is essentially of no value. And that’s the way some people view God’s gift of grace.
They have received it, they have thanked God for it, and they may even be able to tell you exactly when and where they got it. But then they store it away and never use it, or even think about it unless someone asks.
But that is not Paul’s concept of faith, for first of all, the gift of grace is not a thing, but a relationship. It is not something static, but dynamic, ever changing. Grace is a gift that must be used in order to be fully realized. And using that gift is what we call faith.
So Paul’s letter doesn’t stop at chapter 11, but continues with the great “Therefore” of chapter 12. Therefore, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. To respond to God’s gift is not an obligation but an opportunity, an opportunity for growth and for a fuller life. As we use the gift, as we exercise our faith, the relationship we have with God grows and matures.
Yesterday there was a wedding here at the church, and marriage is actually an image that Paul often uses. The couple might say, “My marriage is a real gift and the wedding was great. I now have the gift of being married.” But if they then never live within that relationship, it would have little meaning. It is only as we live within that relationship that we can realize the full potential of marriage, which hopefully continues to grow throughout a person’s lifetime.
So it is with the gift of God’s grace. We are given a new life, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, which open up the opportunity for us to live in a new way within that relationship and experience all that God has to offer us. And the more we live into it, experience it, and give ourselves to it, the more that relationship will grow. It is only as we use the gift that it becomes more alive. It’s like what often happens when someone volunteers for something, like VBS, and then says, “I really got more out of it than I gave.”
The other thing about God’s gift is that, since it is a gift from God, there is no need to “get it right.” It’s God’s gift and just as we give different gifts to different people, so the gift of grace will look different for different people. My experience of God will undoubtedly be different than yours, for relationships are different. Just because my relationship with my spouse is different than yours doesn’t make one right and the other wrong.
Relationships are never static. They are always changing, at least as long as they aren’t ignored. That also means that sometimes they will go through difficult times and we will have to work on renewing the relationship. But the guiding force behind all of this is love, God’s love for us, which we learned this past week is there when we are afraid, or don’t understand, or are different, no matter what God still loves us.
And our love, not only for God, but for those around us as well. And so Paul urges the Roman church to practice that love, to not take vengeance, and to follow the way of Jesus, no matter what.
God has offered us the gift of grace and an opportunity for a relationship with God. We respond to that gift in faith, using the gift and realizing the abundant life that comes in exercising our faith, evne in the face of difficulty. Paul’s message to the Roman church is to remain firm in that faith, because he hopes to come and meet them. And furthermore, he hopes that the church in Rome will be a base from which he can do further missionary work, even into Spain.
He closes the letter, as most ancient letters close, with a doxology, a blessing.
25 Now to God[m] who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom[n] be the glory forever! Amen.[o]