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Monday, March 20, 2017

A New Way of Being Human (Romans 4:23-5:5), 3rd Sunday of Lent

Someone messes up and he’s really hard on himself.  “I can’t believe I did that!”  I’ve experienced this and you probably have too.  I fumble or say something I shouldn’t, something hurtful.  Or, I forget something, and it’s the 4th time.  My forgetting disrupts things for other people.  My mistakes hurt not only me, but others. 
            “I’m such dope,” I say, being hard on myself.  But then a friend comforts me.  “Don’t worry about it,” he says trying to smooth things over, “You’re only human.”
            Only human.  Is that the mark of humanity?  Do we understand our humanness by the blunders we commit?  You’ve heard that old saying.  “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” 
            God had something else in mind when humans were created.  “Let us make humankind in our image,” God said (Genesis 1:26).  To err is human?  Not according to God.  From God’s standpoint, to be human is to be the zenith of creation, the high point.  To be human is to be that created being that is most like God and related to God in a way no other created thing is. 
            I make a mistake and shrug it off, “Well, I am only human.”  No says God.  When we sin, we’re something other than what God intended for humans.  But we all sin and history has shown we don’t have the will power to stop.  We give in to temptation.  We say hurtful things.  We turn away from God’s path.  We lie, cheat, steal, and hoard.  Some even kill.  We disrespect, disregard, withhold help, withhold forgiveness, and withhold love. 
            That’s why Jesus came.  The only way to conquer sin was to allow it to reach its ultimate consequences – death.  When Jesus went to the cross, he carried sin with him.  When he died on the cross, he killed the eternal effect of sin.  When he rose, he conquered death.  In 2nd Corinthians 5:17, the Apostle Paul writes that in Christ, there is new creation.  Commenting on this and on Paul’s concept of what happens when we turn to Jesus, the scholar N.T. Wright says, “Paul points to a new way of being human.”[i]  
            However, when we think back to God’s original creation intent, this ‘new way of being human,’ which is, I think the correct way of seeing Paul’s vision, this new way is actually a reclaiming of God’s original idea.  It’s not that we go back to Eden and live the way Adam and Eve did there.  But, we have the life with God that God always wanted humans to have with Him.  To be human is to be in relationship with God, free from sin and with no fear of death.
            Let’s follow Romans 5 to see how Paul presents a new kind of humanity that we experience and live when we give our lives to Jesus and decide to follow him as our master and Lord. 
            First we must refer back to Romans 4.  There Paul talks about Abraham the great man of faith in the Old Testament.  Paul’s point about Abraham is that he was considered righteous by God, but not because he did anything great.  Abraham did not earn the righteousness credited to him.  God gave Abraham favor because Abraham believed God (4:3).  Abraham trusted God and changed his entire life because God told him to.  Abraham moved his household to a new place because God told him to. 
At the end of Romans chapter 4, Paul writes this was true not only of Abraham, but also of us.  When we believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead, when we follow Him, and when we give our lives to Him, we are counted as righteous. Everything Paul writes about Abraham and about faith applies now to people who follow Jesus.
What does this mean?
To be counted as right with God because we believe in Jesus and live in his grace means we have peace with God.  Sin makes peace with God impossible.  When we benefit from lies and deception and get ahead in life by pushing others back, we can’t have peace with God.  When we participate in racist systems and fail to fight the evils of our day, our relationship with God is injured.  When we speak harshly to one another and do not show love, we’re cut off from our Heavenly Father.  But in Christ, all sins are forgiven and we have peace with God. 
Because of this peace, it says in verse 2 that we have access to God.  God may be a mystery we will never fully understand, but we are invited to step into that mystery.  We become a part of it. Within that mystery, because of Jesus, we are sons and daughters of God.  We stand in grace, and though we have made mistakes in life, those sins no longer cling to us or color us.  We are seen differently.  At the end of Romans 5:2 it even says we share the glory of God.  I don’t honestly know what that means.  I only have glimpses.  But I joyfully hold on to the promise that I will know more and more of the glory of God as I grow in Christ and even more when I enter the promised resurrection.  The blessings are here and then more so in the future. 
Yet this is not just feel-good, pie-in-the-sky, babble divorced from reality.  Paul knew better than most the hardships of life.  In 2nd Corinthians 11 he recites his own resume of pain, suffering that came precisely because he was Jesus’s disciple.  Shipwrecked, flogged, beaten with rods; it all came about in the course of following Jesus.  In our reading, Romans 5, Paul declares the benefits of even these painful experiences. 
He sees God in the suffering and the suffering produces endurance.  He finds out who he is as a man in the most trying of times.  I have sat with people in hospital waiting rooms, visited people incarcerated, had conversations at the funeral home; people often have their most profound moments with God in these hard places.  From righteousness affixed to us by God when we believe, to an invitation into the mystery of God, to the audacious promise of sharing in God’s glory, to the sense that we even meet God in times of suffering, we grow into a knowledge of how life is different when we follow Jesus.
Without Christ, we think money, or the things money can buy, or the security money and power can provide will give us peace.  We are told fantastic experiences like a trip to Hawaii or sky diving or a golf vacation, or even simpler things like a “gold-level” credit card or a certain kind of look or body image will bring happiness.  I am not railing against vacations or material prosperity.  I am not railing against anything.  I am suggesting that the things we can buy are not the things that will give our lives meaning.  Nor are materialistic delights the source of transcendent joy. 
When we talk about the different kind of human, the people we will be in the Kingdom of God, maybe the distinction is most easily seen in how individuals orient their lives.  The woman or man who is of the world has happiness as his or her ultimate life pursuit.  The new kind of human, the one living as God intends his image bearers to be has love as the determining force in his or her life.
Why love?  We’ve talked about sin being nailed to the cross and death defeated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  We’ve talked about the ways our life shifts when we are in Christ. We have peace with God, we have access to God, and in our sufferings and in hard times we grow closer to God.  Why we would claim that love is the ultimate value for the new kind of human?
Romans 5:5 says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Note the direct connection between love and the Holy Spirit.  With the Holy Spirit in us, love is in us.  Imagine you are a coffee mug, one full of fresh, glorious, hot coffee; full to the brim.  Now imagine someone pouring a brand new pot into you after you’re already full.  It flows out everywhere.  That’s the Holy Spirit pouring into us.  That love of God keeps coming and coming until it spills out, and those around us are drenched with God’s love. 
Some Bible readers rightly point out that the term ‘trinity’ is never mentioned in the Bible.  So, they ask, why do we insist that we know God as three – one God existing in three distinct person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  I think the answer is love.  Jesus – God the Son, God in human flesh – was asked, what is the greatest commandment?  He answered, “Love.”  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.”  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus gave these as the ultimate commands for how human beings should live under God, but Jesus also knew that it would be impossible us to keep this command on our own power.  He never meant for us to live on our own power.  To be the kind of people wants us to be, we live in constant contact with God, depending on God for help in all things.  When Jesus gave these commands, he add this: we are to follow Him.
When Paul writes Romans, Jesus has already risen, ascended, and is seated in Heaven at the right hand of the Father.  But thought he has gone there, that does not mean we are without help.  At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto his followers (20:22).  In Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit spread like a wild fire to the hearts of people and they became followers of Jesus.  And here in Romans 5:5, it says God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus came, died, and rose, why?  Because God so loved the world.  Jesus in the flesh is God’s expression of love for us.  When asked how we should live life under God and into eternal life, Jesus said, “Love.  Love God and love people.”  Paul writes that love is poured into us by way of the Holy Spirit.  What holds the Trinity together?  Love.  How do the persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, work together to redeem humanity?  God shows love, exercises love, and gives love to the point of overflowing.
This brings us back to the quote from N.T. Wright I shared at the beginning.  Romans 5:5 is but one of many places where Paul hints at this new way of being human.  Filled with God’s love, love then pours from us in hundreds of ways.
·         A mom is forced to travel to another country and so has to leave her oldest child in charge of the younger ones while she’s gone; another mom brings that family food while she is away.
·         A husband takes a week of paid vacation so he can sit by his wife’s side as she recovers from a difficult surgery.
·         A small church offers financial help to a woman who cannot pay her medical bills.
·         A community of believers comforts a grieving family when the mother/grandmother dies.
·         A small group rejoices when one of the members gets a new job and throws a celebration/goodbye party.  At the party there is laughter and congratulations along with tears because they are happy for him and at the same time sad because he is moving.
·         A young professional who is just starting to make money in his first job, sets aside part of his paycheck to sponsor an impoverished child in another country because he wants that child to have a chance in life and to know Jesus.

These things are not exceptions and they are not few and far between examples.  These are normal occurrences for followers of Jesus because that Holy Spirit love has filled the church’s heart and now is pouring over.  When love floods out of the church, all in its path are blessed. 
N.T. Wright recalls the famous quote from Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.”  Paul’s teaching about God topples over this old axiom.  My existence is not affirmed by the fact that I have self-awareness.  That I think is not proof of my existence, and more importantly it is not why I exist.  Per Romans 5:5, we say, “We are loved, therefore we are.”  Love is why God does what God does, and when we are in Christ, love is why we are who we are and why we act as we do.
As we sing our final song, think about how you have experienced God’s love and how the experience has changed your life so that you live differently now because of it.  If you’d like to, go to the witness wall, as we are singing.  Go write a little note about how you’ve been changed as a result of experiencing God’s love. 
If you don’t know what I mean, come and pray with me or with one of the others waiting to pray with you.  Come and ask God to pour His love into you today.  Come and do that as we sing.

[i] N.T. Wright (2005), Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.173.

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