By faith we have been made acceptable to God. And now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God. Christ has also introduced us to God’s undeserved kindness on which we take our stand. So we are happy, as we look forward to sharing in the glory of God. But that’s not all! We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us. All of this happens because God has given us the Holy Spirit, who fills our hearts with his love. Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful. But there is more! Now that God has accepted us because Christ sacrificed his life’s blood, we will also be kept safe from God’s anger. Even when we were God’s enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us.
–Romans 5.1-10a (CEV)
Imagine you have a dear friend who suddenly betrays you and is now quite hostile toward you and anything you do. How would you react? Realistically you have two choices. You can choose to respond to your friend’s betrayal and hostility tit-for-tat and become his enemy. If you choose this course, your former relationship with him will likely be destroyed forever.
Or you can choose to seek reconciliation so that your former relationship with him might be restored. To do this, you must first forgive your friend and your friend must acknowledge that he has wronged you and caused you harm so that you know he is aware of the problem and his role in it. After all, it takes two to make a relationship. You, of course, must then accept his apology if you really have forgiven him. If that happens, you have the hope and chance of being reconciled to your friend and having your relationship restored to its former state.
But what if your former friend refuses to acknowledge the wrong he has done you? Worse yet, what if he doesn’t think he has done anything wrong to you in the first place? Do you think he will apologize to you and seek to stop doing you harm? Not likely. What then will happen to your relationship? It will be destroyed because even though you made overtures to him so that the two of you might be reconciled and your former relationship might eventually be restored, his refusal to acknowledge the harm he has done you and change his ways toward you prevent that from happening.
Welcome to the predicament that our human condition has caused. While the illustration above is woefully inadequate on some levels–for example, it assumes that the two parties are equals and because both parties are human, neither one has the holiness of God which cannot tolerate evil in any form–it does serve to remind us why we have a season of Lent. God created us to have a relationship with him, a relationship between Creator and creature, and before the Fall, God and humans enjoyed their relationship as God intended.
That is why the Garden of Eden was paradise. But then came the Fall in which humans decided they wanted to take God’s place, that they could be equal to God, i.e., they betrayed God and became hostile toward him, and the relationship was severed. And as we have seen before, without a relationship with God, we humans have no life in us. Death must be the inevitable result because without God, life is not possible. Our human pride and arrogance prevent us from being reconciled with God so that our relationship with him might be eventually restored to the way it was in paradise. Why? Because like the friend in the illustration above, we often don’t think there is a problem and/or we are unwilling to acknowledge that we have done God wrong and be willing to change our ways so as to make reconciliation with God possible. In biblical language this is called confession and repentance.
This, then, is why we undergo a season of Lent. As Paul reminds us today (I chose the CEV version because it is devoid of “churchy” language while not losing the essence of Paul’s theology), God has done a mind-blowing thing for us. God has reached out to us in Jesus and offered us a chance to be reconciled to him so that our fractured relationship with him might be restored eventually (think here the New Creation). He did this for us even while we were still his enemies, still openly rebellious and hostile toward him. He did this because he does not want anyone to have to bear the terrible penalty of having God’s wrath poured out on them. And if you are deluding yourself into thinking God’s wrath is not a terrible thing or that you are not a candidate for it without the cross of Christ, you might want to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the biblical narrative of God’s rescue plan for humanity, a plan that God decided to implement through his people Israel and which culminated in Jesus, the one and only true representative of Israel.
When we undergo a season of Lent, we acknowledge that we are the problem in our relationship with God but we also remember the wondrous Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s great love, mercy, and grace offered to us. Yet we have to have the good sense to accept God’s offer to us. If we don’t, like the friend in our illustration above, we have no hope of ever having our relationship with God restored.
However, when we have the necessary humility and contriteness of being to acknowledge that we are the culprits who have fractured our relationship with God and resolve to do what is necessary on our part to respond to his great love for us as manifested in Jesus, everything changes for us. Instead of being God’s enemy, we now have peace with him, a peace won for us at the terrible cost of his blood shed for us on the cross. We now have the gift of God’s Holy Spirit living in us to help transform us into the beings God created us to be (did you note the very trinitarian nature of Paul’s writing–the love of the Father, who sends the Son to die for us, and who gives us his Holy Spirit to transform and sustain us?).
Paul is not talking about just dying and going to heaven in today’s passage. He is talking about being part of a broader community of believers (the Church) whom God calls to be his Kingdom workers who will imitate Jesus’ work, humility, and suffering to bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Paul is talking about having a chance to be reconciled to the Source and Author of all life so that he can use us to embody Jesus to bring his transformative and healing power to his broken and hurting world. When Paul talks about sharing God’s glory, he is talking not only about the New Creation but also about the glory of God manifested in the cross of Christ! And if we want to share in that glory, we must acknowledge first what God has done for us in Jesus and then willingly set out to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus so that God can use us as his agents of New Creation. Is that just not way too cool?? And it all starts with the season of Lent and our efforts to do our part to respond to God’s gracious love and mercy for us.
If you want a concrete example of how this all works, look no further than Fr. John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. After years of essentially pursuing a program of self-help, Wesley was given the grace to accept God’s great love and mercy for him and it made all the difference in the world for him and his followers. When Wesley and the Methodists accepted the grace and peace of God, it changed them and made them look outward, not inward. They were not interested in some kind of exclusive private spirituality in which they contemplated going to heaven and ignored the human suffering and brokenness around them. No, they took the love of Jesus to people who desperately needed it and arguably helped prevent a social revolution from occurring. In doing so, they partook in God’s glory manifested in his crucified Messiah. Their work originated in their relationship with God and was powered by him. Theirs was no self-help movement. Listen to Wesley now.
At this season we usually distribute coals and bread among the poor of the Society; but I now considered they wanted clothes as well as food. So on this and the four following days I walked through the town and begged two hundred pounds, in order to clothe them that wanted it most. But it was hard work, as most of the streets were filled with melting snow, which often lay ankle-deep, so that my feet were steeped in snow-water from morning till evening. I held it out pretty well till Saturday evening, when I was laid up with a violent [case of diarrhea].
What motivated Wesley to do this? Unless you are prepared to call him a fool and a masochist, you have to admit there is something remarkable going on here (and this is typical of what Wesley and his followers did; it isn’t an isolated example). This is what the love of God does. It allows us to rejoice in our suffering (and if you want to understand what Paul meant by this in today’s passage, here is a classic example). It changes us and compels us to become Jesus’ fellow workers to bring God’s love, healing, and transforming forgiveness to his broken and hurting world, a world that so desperately needs it.
If you are a Christian, is this the kind of dynamic you have in your life? Does your relationship with God empower you to do the work he calls you to do so that you can share in his glory? Does the Spirit set your heart on fire and give you a passion to embody Jesus to the various folks in your life with whom you have regular contact?
And if you are not a Christian, does this vision of having peace with God and sharing it with those in your world excite and invite you–provided I have done an adequate job of laying it out in an understandable way? I pray it does, and if it does, regardless of who you are, remember that you will not embark on this great journey of love and service alone. You have the very Presence of God living in you, transforming and enabling you to live your life with joy, peace, and purpose. At the end of the day, that’s not to be sneezed at because you realize you are rejoicing in your suffering for the Lord and are sharing in his glory.