The passage we had for the Epistle to the Romans may seem rather disconcerting. Chapter 10 verses 8 and 9 reads: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For a person believes with their heart and so is justified, and confesses with their lips and so is saved.”
This could be taken to mean that all we have to do is to acknowledge that Jesus is, in some unspecified way, Lord and persuade ourselves to believe in the resurrection and all will be well–we will be okay with God. That sounds rather trite, but Paul is dealing with a basic Christian truth which is good to revisit from time to time.
Let us start with what Paul means by us acknowledging that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ As those two American theologians to whom we owe so much, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, have made clear, by saying that ‘Jesus is Lord’ those early Christians were saying something very dangerous. They were saying Jesus is Lord and therefore Caesar is not. This was something that the Roman authorities might well, and sometimes did, decide was an act of treason. This was not something to do lightly, to which all those Christian martyrs of the early centuries bear witness.
A little later Paul sketches out some of the implications of acknowledging that ‘Jesus is Lord.’
“Do not be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
A little later he gives an indication of what ‘good, acceptable and perfect’ means in practice. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honour.… Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:9, 10, 13)
So Paul is not talking about something which is merely formal or superficial when he talks about acknowledging that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ But such behaviour is based on, and is the consequence of, something much more profound, basic and life changing than just good living and good behaviour, important though that is.
The clue comes as the beginning of this morning’s reading: “Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it .” (10:5) By contrast for Paul what is absolutely central is that we do not have to earn our way into God’s favour by obeying rules, by obeying the Torah, the Jewish Law, good though it is in itself.
It is rather a matter of grace. We are redeemed, we are justified–that is put in a right relationship with God–by accepting that we are accepted by God in Christ just as we are now. We do not have to earn our way into God’s good books by being especially virtuous, or being concerned with human rights, or being socially active, or being concerned about the climate, or believing all the right things, or being theologically or politically sound, or anything else at all. These things may follow.
We just need to accept, and keep on accepting however often we fall flat on our faces, that we are accepted completely, utterly and totally as we are now by the amazing, unconditional love of God as shown in Christ, especially as shown on the cross, and proclaimed by the Resurrection, which showed that even death. could not defeat the power of God’s love.
It seems to me from his letters that Paul was a difficult and awkward man. But his life had been transformed from a desperate attempt to earn peace with God through a fanatical observance of the Jewish law (thus his persecution of Christians) until he was overwhelmed by the love and graciousness of God on the road to Damascus.
I think we can understand the full-bloodedness, the whole heartedness, of Paul’s central message if we think of being ‘justified by faith‘ as the way in which we are accepted unconditionally by God’s sheer grace and graciousness. It is sheer gift, sheer unearned, undeserved gracious gift. Once Paul had allowed himself to be swept up by the love and graciousness of God in Christ, he was able to escape from his desperate striving to earn justification through his fanatical observance of the law. He had tried that and it did not work. I am sure there are many Jews for whom their faith and the framework of the law does work.
However, Paul had grasped something vital which he was not going to let go. Whatever the route by which we come, at the centre lies the gracious gift of God’s love, and all we have to do to lay hold of it, and keep hold of it, is to accept,that we have been accepted, and keep on being accepted, by our loving Lord totally completely and unconditionally. Paul was not going to allow anyone to box in that amazing gift with man-made conditions.
I will finish with some verses from the end of Psalm 51 in Jim Cotter’s version.
Lord, you desire no animal sacrifices,
no formal gifts out of mere duty.
You do not delight in burnt offerings.
Nothing from our wealth can buy your favour.
The sacrifice for which you ask is a troubled spirit;
it is my pride that must yield.
My broken and contrite heart I bring,
so foolish, self-centred, and vain:
and yet it is all that I have.
Even this gift you will not despise,
for I hear again that you yearn for me,
with a love I can barely imagine.
I give you this day the whole of my being,
dependent as I am on the gift of your grace.
Free me from the desire to dominate,
that my giving may not overwhelm or appease.
May my heart be spontaneously generous,
spreading delight and mutual embrace.
Such is the way of the city of peace,
whose walls you call us to build.