It is not surprising that Paul longed to visit Rome and connect with the saints there. There were many versions and visions of the Way that led to salvation and at-one-ment with God. Paul was eager that the believers in Rome heard from his very own lips the good news that he had experienced personally; the redemptive power of salvation visited upon humanity through Jesus the Christ, the provision of grace for all people. Paul was determined that the congregation in Rome was thoroughly grounded in the knowledge of God’s compassion and fully established in the peace and joy of God’s love.
Paul was not naïve: he had grown up in a very sophisticated, urban environment amongst the privileged. He was well aware of how things worked in political and social life and of the things that people did either in ignorance or open defiance of God’s natural and revealed law. Everywhere he looked in the world, he saw corruption and unworthiness. In response, although surrounded by pagan Gentiles and Hellenized Jews and given an elite education in rhetoric and philosophy, he attached himself to a fastidious arm of the Jewish faith and studied with the most prominent of rabbis. He had pursued his faith zealously, and stood blameless, as people reckon such things, devoted to keeping the Law perfectly as his acceptable offering to God.
Paul had considered himself to be one of God’s champions until an encounter on the Damascus road showed him that he was involved in waging war against the Holy Name he thought he was serving. So Paul also knew about the perils of trusting in even one’s best intentions and most scrupulous actions. But he also learned something else in that life-changing encounter: God’s love toward humans is constant even when they have set themselves against his purposes.
The first verse of Romans 5 draws on Paul’s personal experience and the deep and amazing truth he learned in the weeks following while cared for by the Christian community. The only thing we have to offer God is our faith in Him, the belief that His love is sufficient to us for all things, even salvation, and that faith brings us peace, joy, and hope. To quote Paul, “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This was Paul’s amazing news in a nutshell: this was the gospel he wanted to recite to the Romans. We have peace with God. All that is needed is to trust Jesus’ revelation of God’s heart, the Great Heart of the universe in which there is neither a shadow nor turning. God, from the very beginning, loved and blessed humanity, and that love has remained constant no matter what the failing on humanity’s part. We do not need to be afraid, nor feel estranged and alienated, because of our sins, our unworthiness. Yes, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but God is faithful and can be trusted in his love to heal and restore us. In fact, it was “while we were yet sinners” that Christ “died for us.”
Paul had good news indeed. News worth broadcasting everywhere: Jesus revealed the heart and character of God when he died for us, and we can now stand in a position of grace, rejoicing in hope of what God’s compassion and faithfulness may yet work in us. This peace, this hope, has such power that it can see us through the many and varied tribulations and heartaches of this life. In every situation, we stand to learn more about God’s faithfulness and power to bring us into wholeness and home to Him.
If all this seems too good to be true, that the faithful revelation of Jesus can undo the millennia of human fear and alienation from God, Paul asks us to consider how this state of affairs began. He points us back to the book of Genesis, the story of one person’s (Adam’s) fiasco in the Garden of Eden. His logic is simple: if one man’s doubt and misstep introduced suffering, death, and alienation from God into human experience, why cannot the righteous life and clear revelation of God’s character of another individual (Jesus, God himself in the flesh) work to restore our relationship with God? Jesus answered the questions of who God is (Love) and what he desires for us (abundant life), opening up for us the opportunity to come to God, just as we are, in faith that He will welcome us and give us a future and a hope.
There are those who fixate on the question of the “two men": Adam and Jesus. They variously wonder if Jesus were the second Adam, as Paul pictured him, in what way(s) he was or was not like the first Adam, and what that has to do with our own lives and if that does not mean we should hope/strive for the sinless nature he manifested? For Paul, Jesus was a second Adam in that like the first earthling, he stood at a crossroads and made a decision of whether to trust God or lean into human understanding, and that multitudes would follow and be affected by his choice. Clearly, as disastrous as Adam’s decision was for humanity, in Paul’s eyes, Jesus’ decision was by far the more important: Jesus’ choice to be faithful opened the door of salvation for all people.
In all fairness, it must be noted that Jesus and Adam did not stand on a level playing field when making their decisions. Adam, though also a son of God and made in God’s image, did not know God the way Jesus did. Jesus, unlike Adam, had been part of God from the beginning. Adam was created with the capacity to give and receive love, but he had only practiced loving under ideal conditions. He had never been tested. Nor had he experienced God in any situation other than when he had been in harmony with His will. He did not know whom God was when confronted by disobedience and sin. Thus, we have the story of his attempts to hide from God after the unfortunate incident with the fruit. Despite his daily interaction with God, he could not possibly know God fully.
And Adam certainly did not know the actual meaning of the consequences of sin. He had no idea what he was unleashing into and upon the world when he partook of the forbidden fruit. He was still so naïve that he did not know the difference between knowledge and wisdom, embracing, along with Eve, Satan’s lie that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would make one wise and that they would be like God. He did not trust God, or the course in which God had instructed him, because he did not know God or the universe from an eternal perspective.
Jesus, on the other hand, had been with God through it all: the creation of the universe, the ensnarement of humanity, the pain, the suffering, and the loss. He had been there at the heart of the Universe, first rejoicing and then grieving with God the Father. He knew the nature of the great commandment, and the lesser commandments, and the truth about what sustains and what destroys individuals, communities, and planets. He knew the truth about God and the truth about the universe. And he knew the name and nature of the Destroyer. He was not so easily deceived. While in human form, he bore all the infirmities of humanity, grew, and ached just as any other person, yet he knew the God of love in a way that neither Adam nor any of us since have known Him. He knew whom he served and why he was making his abode among us, and his clarity provided him with a shield from Satan that Adam did not have. Jesus was able to make peace between humanity and the God from whom they were estranged because he knew God and could speak with authority for God.
Paul had a great burden for the Roman faithful, a burden that he would carry for us if he were still here today. Now is the time to recognize that all human beings are flawed and sinful but loved passionately by God. The death sentence that we deserve has been commuted by a God who declared that “Love is stronger than death.” We have every right to put aside our fear of and alienation from God who revealed Himself to us through the life and death of Jesus Christ. We have every right to rejoice in God’s glory, His steadfast compassion, and the mercy He has extended towards us. We have every reason to be at peace, no matter what befalls us, for we are always at rest in the heart of God.
Written by Ginger Hanks Harwood, Ph.D.
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