At the right time

Why would a righteous man die?  To prove God's love.

Full Text: 

At the right time

May 10, 2015 – Romans 5:1-11

 

            In the 2014 movie, “Calvary,” Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a priest in the small town of Sligo, on the northwest coast of Ireland.  It is a movie full of fine acting and beautiful scenery.  But the most powerful scene may be the one that comes at the beginning.

            Father James is seated in the confessional.  He hears the story of a man who was subjected to sexual abuse by a priest for five years when he was a boy.  The man does not confess a sin, but rather confesses what he plans to do.  He does not intend to seek vengeance or reparations against the offending priest.  That priest is dead.  No, the man intends to kill Father James, not because he has sinned, but because he hasn’t.  The man intends to kill Father James precisely because he is a good priest, precisely because he is innocent.  And he plans to do it on the beach, a week from Sunday.

            Father James knows who the man is who has threatened him, but we do not.  Although he does discuss the matter with his bishop (without much help, by the way), he does not go to the police.  Instead, Father James goes about his work as a priest, ministering to the people of his parish.  He tries to give counsel to those who are in pain, even serves as a scapegoat to those who have complaints with God or the church.  And he comes across people whom Jesus may have met in his ministry – an adulterous woman, a rich man, a man facing death, a woman in grief.  A more troubled lot you are not likely to find, but, with the prospect of his own death looming, that is where he goes.

 

            Paul is on his way to Rome.  He wants to get there so he can continue on the Spain.  We know that he does not make it to Spain.  We know he only gets to Rome as a prisoner.  We know that he is executed in Rome.  And Paul himself cannot be unaware of the risk – the risk of being an out-of-the-closet Christian in an empire where it is against the law to be anything but a worshipper of the emperor. 

Still, Paul goes.  He goes to the Christians of Rome.  He is not there yet.  He has been trying to get there for some time.  One thing or another has gotten in his way to stop him.  But he wants to see them because they live with the same threat that he does.

            Because he is delayed, he drops them a note – well, not exactly a note.  He goes on a bit more than that. Actually, he writes a 16 page letter.  Paul tells them how much he has heard about their faith.  He wants to come and offer some spiritual gift to them.  Or, if not, he wants them to be able to encourage each other in faith.  Still, even before he arrives, Paul encourages them:

            “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation who everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’

            Paul does not hold back.   Even in the face of persecution, imprisonment and death, Paul is not shy about talking Christianity.  Salvation is not something that we do.  It is not even something we seek. It is something that God has promised to do from long ago and now has done in Jesus.  And we participate in the saving work simply by trusting that God has done it and by living in obedience to him, even when we can’t see the proof or the results.

            This salvation is for all.  And, if it is for all, that all have a need for God’s saving work.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  There are no exceptions.  There are no excuses.

            Falling short is expressed in “ungodliness and wickedness” – disregarding God, on the one hand, and violence toward other people, on the other.  The natural outcome of ignoring the reality that we are all created by God and that we are all dependent on God for life is the madness that we can satisfy ourselves and that we don’t need each other.  And you don’t have to read the Bible to understand this, Paul says.  All you need to do is look at the beauty and power and wonder of creation. So, the Greeks have no excuse.

            The Jews have no excuse.  They have received clear direction from God about how to live in fear, love and trust.  They have been given the gift of God’s teaching and taken into a special relationship with God.  This relationship is sealed in the rite of circumcision.  But this special rite and unique relationship under the law is of value only if you keep the law, only if you obey the commandments.  And that you do so, not only on the outside, but also on the inside.  But those who have been given the law talk a good game, but they don’t play a good game.  So, the Jews have no excuse.

            There are no exceptions.  There are no excuses.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

            But then, in this story of sin and death, Paul comes to the great turning point – “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)

            God’s righteousness is not displayed in God’s wrath.  It is revealed in his mercy, in his forgiveness.  God doesn’t get rid of all the bad people.  Instead, God clears a way for them – for all of us – to have access to God.  God doesn’t accomplish this transformation by killing off the bad people – even by killing one really bad person.  God does this by offering one man – Jesus – who freely offers himself out of love for us.  It is that love that saves us.  It is that love that frees us.  It is that love that brings us back to God and to each other.

            And it is in Jesus that God’s mercy is expressed: 

            “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

            If someone bad dies, then we can write it off.  We can dismiss it.  We can say, “He got what was coming to him.  He got what he deserved.”  And we can go on with our lives just as before.

            Bur if a good man dies, that brings us up short.  We are more likely to feel vulnerable.  We are more likely to look at our own lives.  We are more likely to open ourselves to change.  In the death of a good – an innocent man – we are more likely to become vulnerable.  And in the death of Jesus, God has become vulnerable for us.

 

            Father James is a good priest.  He is not a perfect priest – although I’m not sure I would want to be served by a perfect priest.  He has his problems.  But he is authentic.  He has struggled with alcohol and could do so again.  He has suffered the loss of his wife.  While it is clear that he and his daughter love each other, they also have problems.  Father James is not perfect.  But he does have integrity.  He is who he is.  He has flaws and is honest about them.  Perhaps that is why he is patient with the flaws of his people.  They are all in need of forgiveness.

            In a phone conversation with his daughter, after they seem to have worked things out, he says to her that he thinks there is too much talk about sin and not enough talk about virtue.  She asks him what virtue would be at the top of his list.  He tells her that forgiveness is highly under-appreciated.

            It is forgiveness, I think, that has the last word in, “Calvary,” and it is forgiveness that is most needed.  It is forgiveness that we most need.  And it is forgiveness that has the last word with us.  That’s what brings us back to God.  That is the grace in which we now stand.  That is the peace we now have.  And it comes to us – at the right time – in Jesus.