We’re preaching through Romans at our church right now, and I’ll admit that it’s a challenge.
I’m more a John sort of girl. I like an image to hang my hat on, a story to dive into. Romans is short on story and long on multisyllabic words. Unpacking Paul is like opening up a set of Russian nesting dolls.
I find myself saying things like, “Ok, stay with me,” a lot in my sermons these days.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy Paul; I do. Very much. But preaching him takes work because words like justification and reconciliation and trespasses and righteousness aren’t really part of our common parlance anymore. And when they are, they don’t tend to mean exactly what they would have meant to Paul’s original Roman audience.
[My nerdy husband is totally geeking out on Romans. He is fully loving it.]
The other pastors and I are collectively knee deep in Fleming Rutledge’s lovely, challenging Not Ashamed of the Gospel as a preparation aid. She’s a brilliant Episcopalian preacher with a keen turn of phrase, and Not Ashamed is a collection of her sermons on Romans.
Her words on our helplessness have stuck with me this week, and helped me to understand Paul’s own in a deeper way.
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. –Romans 5:6
And here’s Rutledge:
We don’t like that part about being helpless, so we substitute another gospel, the American gospel: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ As many polls have shown, vast numbers of Americans think that comes from the Bible. It can’t be said too many times: it does not come from the Bible. The Bible tells us exactly the opposite: When we could not help ourselves, Christ died for us.
Romans is helping me remember my helplessness, both as a preacher (I cannot tell you how many times in this series I’ve prayed, “Lord, help me!”) and as a sinner.
We can’t be good enough to earn God’s favor, friends.
Someone had to stand in our place, giving us a righteousness we could not earn.
Martin Luther puts it this way:
Therefore, my dear brother [and sister], learn Christ and him crucified; learn to pray to him despairing of yourself, saying ‘Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou hast taken on thyself what thou wast not, and hast given to me what I am not.
We are helpless. But the Helper has come.
Do you ever find yourself trying to earn your way into God’s good graces?
Where do you feel helpless today?