SJF • Lent 3a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
We come now to the Third Sunday in Lent, almost the halfway point on our journey to Easter. I want to continue today in reflecting with you on Saint Paul’s message of hope and salvation, what he called “his gospel,” as he laid it out in his Letter to the Romans. How shocking this gospel must have been to the observant Jews and philosophical Gentiles to whom Paul was speaking, especially when he spoke about Christ dying for “the ungodly,” dying for “sinners.” He writes in the passage we heard last week that “God justifies the ungodly” and repeats this idea in the passage we heard today, and tries further to explain it. And I will attempt the same, as it is crucial to our understanding of how God works in the world, and in us, to accomplish his great purpose: not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved.
Saint Paul uses two terms that bear further study: justification and reconciliation. Both are acts of God done for us and to us, not for any merit of our own, but because God chooses to do so, because, as John says, God so loves us.
The problem is that we tend to think about justification as if it means “to be found just.” We picture God judging and weighing us and our works, and finding us worthy. But that is not what justification means. It does not mean “to be found or judged just”; rather it means “to be made just” — and only that which is unjust needs to be made just.
Fortunately for us, the word justification has another meaning that can help us understand, and you’ve got an example of it today right in front of you, in the Sunday bulletin! Most of you who have used a word-processor on a computer know that justification means arranging the spacing of the text so that the words all line up along one or both margins. Look at the way our long Gospel reading is printed in the bulletin — and, Paul, I hope your biceps are doing well, for holding up the book for that long! — look at how the Gospel is printed: you’ll notice that the text runs even down the left side of the page, but along the right it’s uneven, it’s ragged. That is called “left justification” and is easily accomplished: in fact, back in the days of typewriters that’s how all typewritten text looked — for those among us who remember typewriters!
But look at the first or the second reading. Notice how the words line up down both sides of the text. In the days of manual typesetting that was very tedious work indeed, and thank goodness the computer can do it now with the touch of a button! The point is that text is not “naturally” justified. It takes work. Naturally speaking, each letter and word take up so much space, so if you make no adjustments — as in our Gospel text — if you start at the same place at the left, the words will go across the page, following their own course, and end up uneven on the right, since the total number of letters and of words is different line by line. But in the fully justified text — and that is what it is called — in the fully justified text extra space is added between the words and sometimes between the letters (and hopefully unperceptibly) to stretch the lines out so that they line up flush — justified — both on the left and on the right. Left to their own devices, they would be as ragged as the other text, but through the intervention of the computer program — the lines are made to stand evenly down the page: they have been justified. And it took work; it took the work of someone — in this case the computer — outside the words themselves to do justify them. Left to their own, they would be ragged still.
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I think perhaps you see where I’m heading with this! But I’d first like to also take up the other word that Saint Paul uses for this process: reconciliation, for it too has a contemporary meaning that can perhaps help us understand what Paul is getting at. I’m sure that many of us here have had the experience of trying to balance your checkbook when the statement from the bank comes in. Sometimes the figures just won’t come out right, and you have to work and work to find where you have made a mistake, either entered the wrong amount in the wrong place or added or subtracted incorrectly, and compare it with the statement that you got from the bank. And this process of examining and comparing the bank’s statement and your record, and correcting any errors, is called reconciliation. If you never got the bank statement, the errors would pile up and accumulate month after month, and you would end up terribly out of balance. It is impossible to “reconcile” your bank account on your own, just from your own perspective: you need that statement from the bank to compare with your record, and it is only through the arrival of that statement that reconciliation is possible.
God’s reconciliation works the same way: God comes to us — God sent us his “statement” — and deals with us in the messed up checkbooks of our lives, where we’ve entered the wrong numbers and done the math wrong — and reconciles us, bringing us into sync with what God and God alone knows is righteous and true.
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Both of these words, justification and reconciliation, show us that it is the unjustified who need justification and the unreconciled who need reconciliation — and that is who we all are; for as I reminded us last week, we are the ones who are not righteous: there is none who is righteous, under his or her own power; no not one — we are all, as the old song goes,“standing in the need of prayer.”
And of more — in need of a savior. It is the ungodly who have the greatest need of God; it is the sinners who require reconciliation. And the great good news of Paul’s Gospel is that God comes to us in our need. As Saint Paul says, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... While we were still sinners Christ died for us... and we have been justified by his blood... while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”
God’s ultimate “statement” — and you can bank on it! — God’s “Word Incarnate” — is nothing other than Jesus Christ himself, who comes to us in our raggedness and imbalance and pulls us back into alignment and righteousness: he makes the ungodly righteous, by his own saving act, his death on the cross and his coming to life again.
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Some people don’t grasp this powerful message. They want to think we do it on our own. They don’t understand the truth that Christ Jesus came to save sinners: which is to say, all of us who stand in need of justification, who need the nudging of the Spirit to align our ragged edges, who need his overarching perspective to see our faults and reconcile us to his perfect will.
We have a wonderful vision of this in the Gospel reading today, that story of Jesus spending time with someone who on three counts should have been beyond the pale. She is a Samaritan, and Jews have nothing to do with the hated Samaritans. She is a woman, and in those days a Jewish man wouldn’t think of speaking with a strange woman in public — you note how the disciples are astonished that Jesus has done so. And finally this woman is, to use a phrase from way back, “no better than she should be.” Among other things, she’s had as many husbands as a Hollywood celebrity, and she’s working on the next one!
And yet Jesus is there with her — we’ve even got a picture of her in our stained glass window here — he is there with her, holding the longest sustained conversation with any individual in the entire gospel. Think of that! This is the longest recorded conversation with an individual person Jesus has in the entire Gospel: a Samaritan, a woman, and no better than she should be! In spite of her nationality and her religion, in spite of her sex and her role in society, in spite of her personal morality...
— But wait a minute! What am I saying? Have I too so easily forgotten Paul’s Gospel? It is not in spite of these things that Jesus spends all of this time with her, but because of these things! Jesus comes to sinners; he comes to those who need him. He comes to bring living water not to those who are so full of themselves they think they have no need, but to those who know they thirst. He comes to bring word of his Holy Spirit to those who are starved for that breath of fresh air, the wind that blows from where and to where we know not, but which bears the unmistakable scent of new life.
Jesus comes to justify and reconcile the unjustified and the unreconciled, to bring water to the desert, and the wind of the Spirit that carries the scent of green things sprouting even out in the parched land of sin. For it is there that the grace of God is needed, and it is there that the grace of God is shown. As Saint Paul so beautifully said, “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
God has come to us, the unrighteous, to make us righteous; he has come to us, even in the prison of our sin, to bring us into the freedom of his kingdom. In him, and in him alone, are we justified and reconciled — and saved.
May we always give thanks to God our heavenly Father, for that gift of his Son: who lived for us and died for us, and risen from the dead now lives and reigns forever.+