Psalm 105:1-11, 45b and Romans 8:26-39
I am continuing this morning with my series of sermons on Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, drawing from the book Not Ashamed of the Gospel by Fleming Rutledge. One of Paul’s most important themes could be stated as “There but for the grace of God go I.” If we can learn to say this in any and all circumstances, Paul would say, we will have come a long way toward appropriating the gospel message. There is liberation, you see, in the Christian confession of sin and unworthiness before God. The knowledge that each one of us is a sinner in need of God’s mercy is strangely and wonderfully freeing. We do not need to set ourselves up against others as though we were more deserving than them. We can be compassionate in our dealings with one another because we know we can never accurately evaluate the hand that another person has been dealt.
Mercy shown to that other person is a sign that we trust God to make that evaluation and to be at work in that person’s life as God is in ours. And yet the Christian way of mercy and forgiveness is often perplexing, not only to those outside the faith, but sometimes especially to those inside. We are often genuinely confused as to how we should react to grave injustices. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian who resisted Hitler and was hanged by the Nazis a mere three days before the Allies overran the German lines, makes a useful distinction: He wrote that the grace of God is free, but it is not cheap.(1)
When Bonhoeffer wrote this, long before his own ordeal, he was thinking of the sacrifice of Jesus, who as the eternal Son on the right hand of God emptied himself of deity, privilege, power, riches, and reputation in
order to give himself up to disgrace and death on the Cross in place of us sinners.(2) God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap, for it cost the Lord a price so great that even the biblical writers must grope for words to convey it. Paul refers to it in today’s passage, saying that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”
Forgiveness and mercy, therefore, are costly. They do not come easily. We should learn to beware of forgiveness that comes too quickly, too glibly, with insufficient cost to the forgiver. I was in seminary when a Catholic priest named Lawrence Jenco died. His death made quite an impression on us seminarians. Father Jenco had been held hostage in Beirut for eighteen months by Islamic radicals in the 1980s, along with Terry Anderson and Terry Waite and others. Among other brutalities, he was kept in solitary confinement for six months and was told three times that he was about to be released, only to learn hours later that it was a joke. He wrote a book about his experiences called, Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage to Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage. This is a striking title. In the first part, Bound to Forgive, he indicates that as a Christian he is under orders to forgive; forgiveness is not optional for him. But the second half of the title, Pilgrimage to
Reconciliation, shows that forgiveness is not necessarily instantaneous. It involves struggle and sacrifice, patience and endurance—like a pilgrimage. Father Jenco wrote, “I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember [these things] in order to inflict some future retribution.”(3)
Nelson Mandela’s administration in South Africa took a similar approach when it formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid in the 1990s. The Commission was headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Its mandate was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims. A register of reconciliation was also established so that ordinary South Africans
who wished to express regret for past failures could also express their remorse. Mandela it seems had no interest in inflicting retribution for the crimes of apartheid, and he set a personal example by reaching out to whites and pursuing future-oriented policies of reconciliation and healing. The Commission was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa.
Nonetheless, the reconciliation process had many critics, and relationships between black and white communities in South Africa remain fraught even today. Not surprisingly, many victims of the apartheid era abuses questioned whether true reconciliation could be achieved without justice. Forgiveness does not come easily. As Christians, we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our forgiveness of others is derivative from God’s forgiveness of us. It is not something we produce in ourselves by force of human will. We receive it as a gift from God, whose perfect will is at work in us: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Our part is to expect the gift of forgiveness and to welcome it when it arrives. And yet, when we attempt to express the totality of what God does in us, forgiveness is too weak a word. I think of the dozens of African American families who have lost a loved one to the hyper aggressive style of policing that has resulted in the deaths of so many young black men and women in circumstances where such violence would likely not have occurred had they been white. When we listen to their voices—as we’ve had the chance to do in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder—we can hear the grief and rage that scarcely abate as time goes by. Adding to these families’ pain is the fact that more often than not, the police officers involved are not disciplined or charged with crimes, and if charged, are rarely convicted. No one is punished. What we notice
here is the overpowering sense of injustice and wrong. It isn’t just a sense of grief and loss that the Black community feels, though that is bad enough; it must struggle against its utter impotence in the face of an unresponsive and presumably unrepentant system that has for so long refused to change.
The Christian message of forgiveness is pallid and insufficient if it does not take into account the agony of those who suffer injustice. And so Paul does not use the word “forgiveness.” He uses another word. It is a
huge challenge to interpret this word; sometimes one wishes that Paul had chosen an easier one. Preachers and Bible teachers have been struggling for years to find the best way of making this word live. Here it is in our passage from Romans for today: “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?”(4) This is such an important message that I wish I could put neon lights around it. “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” The reason that Christians are free from the need to be vindictive from here to eternity is that God is going to take care of injustice. God is going to take care of wickedness. God is going to take care of treachery and racism and every kind of evildoing. That is what justification means: God is going to justify, God is going to rectify, God is going to make the figures come out right. God isn’t just going to pat humanity on the head and say, “That’s all right, it’s all forgiven and forgotten, let’s just indulge in a little erasure here and a little rearrangement there and put it all behind us and go forward.” That is called denial and it is bad for everybody. That’s not what God does.
What then is God going to do? How is God going to accomplish this rectifying? How is God going to make everything come out right? That’s a bit of a mystery for which our present language is only partly adequate. The Bible describes it in metaphorical language, the language of new creation. “I consider,” says Paul, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” Paul stretches for imagery, and it is noteworthy that many communities that have suffered greatly have found great comfort in the book of Revelation with its picture of the decisive defeat of evil and the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth in which all pain and sorrow will be done away with forever.
Imagine something that we have all seen from time to time, a life reclaimed from addiction. Imagine, if you will, a man who through his own weakness and culpability has lost everything—position, home, wife, children, community, reputation, human future. Like Cain, he becomes a pariah on the face of the earth, marked for life. Can there be anyone present for Christian worship today who would not wish for that man to be restored by God to health and blessing? Yet we recognize that it cannot be without cost. We cannot just go to a cocktail party with a person who has committed great wrongs and be jolly as though nothing had happened, any more than the American people can pretend that no evil was ever done to its citizens of color. Part of God’s rectification consists of our acknowledgement that there has been great wrong.
Nowhere in the Bible is it suggested that wrongdoing will simply be overlooked by God. No Christian can expect to escape judgment for sin. There are many places in the New Testament that make this clear, including the description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. Paul himself says in Romans 14:10 that “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God,” and he specifically includes himself.(5)
Our sins will be brought to light; the Lord “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”(6) He will indeed come to judge the quick and the dead. But! and
this is the big But! As we heard two weeks ago from Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” There is judgment before God; but Christ’s death on the Cross—the ultimate price—has removed the everlasting condemnation from us, once and for all. Forgiveness is not cheap because it cost God everything.
James F. Kay, Dean at Princeton Seminary, once commented on a proposed new Presbyterian baptismal service in which the participants were to be asked to renounce “the ways of sin that separate us from Jesus Christ.” This proposed text, Dr. Kay pointed out, is precisely the opposite of what the Letter to the Romans promises us. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from Jesus Christ. Sin cannot separate us from Christ. If it can, we are indeed doomed. Paul’s message is that our renunciation, such as it is, of sin in this life will always be inadequate, given our frail human nature, so we cannot have confidence in it. We have confidence rather in the love of God, and Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,” not even our own worst selves, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” in whom we can rest all our cases, knowing that in his future there will finally come not only the forgiveness of sins but also the rectification of all things, so that by a power beyond human imagining, George Floyd will be returned to his family, and the lost sons and daughters of slavery and apartheid will be returned to their families, and black lives will truly matter in every corner of this
country and the far-flung world.
In the meantime, it is up to us to work for these things in the Spirit of love that we have come to know in Jesus Christ and in the sure confidence that God’s future is indeed a just one. If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? . . . Christ
Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, indeed intercedes for us.
To the Lord our God, Alpha and Omega, be all glory and honor forever. Amen.
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1959), the chapter on “Costly Grace.”
(2) Philippians 2:6-8; 2 Corinthians 8:9.
(3) Obituary in The New York Times, July 22, 1996.
(4) Romans 8:33.
(5) I Corinthians 4:4.
(6) I Corinthians 4:5.