From the moment we are born and have our first breath of life outside the womb to the moment that we give up our last breath and our life force goes from us, there are a couple of things that universally we human beings need. We need peace, and we need somehow to believe that our life actually matters, that our existence is worth something. Peace and a sense of worth and value that we matter are what it means to be human. It doesn’t matter if we have been born with a disability and for the rest of our days struggle with those disabilities. It doesn’t matter if we have been born in a war-torn country and that we go from camp to camp trying to find security and peace. It doesn’t matter if we were born in one of the great homes on the hills of Monaco overlooking the gorgeous harbour and that we attend the finest universities in the world. It doesn’t matter if we are an indigenous person and that we are born and spend our years on Baffin Island. It doesn’t matter if we are from royalty or poverty, every single human being needs peace and the sense that their life matters.
All the more so because of our vulnerability as human beings. We are vulnerable due to the machinations of others and the hatefulness and the harm that is caused by it. Maybe it is because of our physical ailments that we feel vulnerable in the face of the challenges and the demands of life. Maybe it is just our mortality, maybe it is just because we are not often spiritually and emotionally equipped to deal with the challenges that life throws at us. We are vulnerable, and it doesn’t matter whether we are a small child; a senior in declining health, or at the height of our peak of physical fitness: we are all vulnerable to something. It is the very nature of our being.
Maybe it is for this reason that our passage from Romans, Chapter 5, in my opinion is one of the greatest passages of Scripture in The New Testament. It goes right to the heart. In it are these key words: “suffering”, “weakness”, “sinfulness”, and “enmity with God”. These are things that the Apostle Paul picks up on that are endemic to the human condition. They speak to us because they are real, and because they are real, what he has to say matters. Yet, in the midst of this dense rhetoric and it is dense rhetoric, there are absolute pearls – almost as if God has given them to us to make our life more meaningful and richer. The very opening phrase starts with it all: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
This was the foundation that shook the world through the Reformation. This was the passage that described the power and central role of faith in Christ in Christianity. This was the great declaration of the Good News. When we read that, there are certain things we know: that there is ultimately someone who is for us and with us and that there is some peace. There is an assurance in this passage that has changed so many lives in the history of humanity that it is the banner under which the faithful resides.
Why is it so powerful? Why is it an explanation, an antidote, a healing of all the weakness and the suffering and the enmity that Paul also speaks about in here? Well, the answer lies in the fact that peaceful relationships are based on living relationships. In this opening line of this incredible passage, Paul uses a word, and it is a word that is often very technical, it is forensic as a legal term, “justified”: “We have been justified by faith.” But there are many people who don’t grasp the power of it. For all the technical language that one might use to describe what justification means, in essence: “in a correct relationship” we often don’t have an image in our minds of what it means.
This week something dawned on me. I was trying to hook up a new printer to my laptop, and I am the least technically savvy person I know – except one! I had no idea what to do. I got this thing out and I put it on the table and I looked for an instruction manual, and there was none. In fact, if you want to know how to use it, you have to go back to your computer and download the instructions. I am finding this now almost cruel! I have to use technology to understand technology. Praise the Lord, I succeeded! But believe me, it was divine intervention! No one was more shocked than me! I also realized with this new printer there was a myriad of things that I could do: I could copy, I could fax, and I could scan.
This was a whole new world to me! There were colours coming out I had never seen before. There was also a default setting. Appearing in the default setting was the word “Justified”. I had forgotten all about justified. Once I had finished with my dissertation, you don’t need to justify any more! You can just let sentences run on and roll around. But no, justify for those of you who use computers means aligned with everything on the right side lining up neatly. I thought, “Lord that is justification!” We have now been justified, aligned with God through Our Lord, Jesus Christ!” That is exactly what Paul meant. We have been put in a right relationship with God. In other words, what God has done has brought us into line with his will and his purpose – justified! It is that relationship with God that becomes seminal for all relationships. If we have peace with God, are aligned with God, then we are in a right relationship that will be the foundation for all other relationships.
Oftentimes, however, rather than accept the fact that we are brought into a right relationship with God through Our Lord, Jesus Christ, through what he has done, and I will explain more in a moment, we try to find other ways to find peace or what matters in life. One of the ways that human beings do it, and by doing so reject justification by faith, is escape. When we are confronted with the frailties of life and the challenges that come our way, we escape and pretend they aren’t happening, or we look to other avenues to find peace.
Last March, almost to the day, I attended a lecture at Keble College at Oxford in English literature on the very famous English poet, John Clare. Now Clare is not someone that I had known about except I think from a textbook in high school. I knew he existed, but I didn’t realize that, according to the professor delivering the lecture, he is actually one of the finest poets of the nineteenth century. Clare was born in the middle of England not far from the City of Peterborough, and he was brought up in a very poor home. His father was a farm labourer. Because of that, Clare never really ate properly, was malnourished as a child, and only grew to five feet tall. The interesting thing about this man is that, while he had been born in great poverty, he had a phenomenal ability to write.
Along with many of the great romantic poets, he was able to capture the pathos of human life and the desire to get away from its struggles. He tried to find it in nature, very much like an Emerson or a Thoreau in the United States. He wrote an incredible poem called I Am, and there are three stanzas I want to share with you this morning. This may sound very distant, but believe-you-me, as you hear what he wrote, maybe your life resonates with him.
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
Clare could write poetry! He understood that need for peace and a sense of being important and mattering, but at the same time he tried to find it in the seclusion and the peace of the universe around him, to be with his God and to lie down below what he calls the “vaulted sky”. Yet that form of escape can only last for a moment. Very soon we are brought back to the vulnerabilities and the vagaries of life. There is no escape in some place on this earth that gives us eternal bliss. It doesn’t exist!
Some people I find also turn to religion. They want religion to give them peace. I love that great phrase from Martin Luther “I tried to escape hell by becoming a monk.” In other words, he tried to get away from the hell in life and the problems around him by literally checking out and becoming a monk, thinking that somehow entering a monastery could save him. Luther came to the realization that none of that was possible, and it was Luther who started to bring to the fore, though there were others before him like Huss and Melanchthon, who said “We are justified by faith. There is our peace!” Originally, Luther wanted to find it in religion, just like Paul who wanted to find it in the law. He desperately sought in the law to find his meaning and his purpose and his peace, but to no avail! Religion did not get him here, and no matter how much religion you pack into your lives, you are not going to find the peace you are looking for.
Same way when you turn on God completely and say that there is no God, just like those bus signs that were put up by the Atheist League in the United Kingdom that said, “There is probably no God, therefore just enjoy your life and don’t worry!” In other words, if there is no God, you have no need to worry, just enjoy life. Well, that may be fine if everything is going your way, if life is pleasurable, if you have all the bourgeois treats, but as one Korean theologian said to me not long ago in a conversation, “The world is not a benign playground.” I think the Koreans know that right now, don’t they? It is all very well to say, “Stop worrying and just enjoy your life.”
It may sound nice, but still there has to be something more, because it is in relationships that we find our peace. This is where Romans really gets going now. Paul says, “Therefore, having being justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Later he says, “While we were yet sinners, this Christ died for us.” He didn’t say you notice, “When we became perfect, Christ died for us”, “When everything was naturally justified and aligned, Christ died for us”, “When we have found absolute and complete fulfillment, Christ died for us”. He said, “No! While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is then that he brought us into a right relationship with the Father, and why? Because whatever your vulnerabilities might be, whatever your weaknesses, your sins, your struggles, your fears, and your guilt might be, you put them on Christ. It is if he is saying, “I have already taken them. They are already on me, but give them to me anyway. If you are angry with my Father, put it on me. If you are disappointed with my Father, put it on me. If you feel enmity with those who you love, put it on me. If you are angry with someone who has wronged you, put it on me. If you are mad at yourself for being incomplete, put it on me.” While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Christ is saying, “Put it on me. I will bear it.” Jesus said to his disciples – that classic phrase from John’s Gospel, “My peace I give to you. It is not as the world gives unto you, but my peace I give unto you.”
The peace that Christ gives us is that assurance that we are forgiven, that we are protected as vulnerable creatures. From the moment that we breathe to beyond the moment when the breath goes out of us, he is there for us, and in that there is peace. It is this peace, says Paul, “that passes all understanding.” It is not something we go out and seek, but rather it is something that is given to us through our faith. It is in essence faith in the cross of Christ. Paul also says that this peace is poured out in love into our hearts. It is not only a peaceful relationship that we have with God or even with ourselves as children of God; it is in our relationship with others. Having been justified by faith, we don’t need to justify ourselves before others. We don’t need to hold the wrong that they have done to us in our hearts, we let it go. We don’t need to take the enmity that we have for somebody else and foster it in our own soul; we let it go. The very same one, who justifies us, justifies the ungodly. So we no longer live either at enmity with God or our fellow human being. This gets lost in religion, in escaping, in denial, and we need to capture what the Reformation found: that our justification, our right alignment comes through faith, and that is applied to all relationships.
I was given a book last year by a member of our Board of Trustees entitled Heroes. It is one of those remarkable books, because it talks about heroes that you never really think of: the people who throughout history have had a profound effect, though history might not recognize them as such. In it, there was the story of the famous Lady Jane Grey, who I always thought was just a footnote in some history book, but was actually quite a remarkable young woman. Lady Jane Grey was the great grandniece of King Henry VII and the second-cousin of Edward VI. She had grown up in a home where there was quite a lot of abuse, and she described it as being “Hell.” She sought refuge in scholasticism, and learned Greek and Latin and other languages. She became so proficient at Greek that university professors would ask for her opinion when she was fifteen years old. She had been trained by a Protestant reformed minister, Reverend Aylmer. Her life took a dramatic turn. She was married at the age of sixteen to Lord Dudley, and he and his family were people who really wanted to succeed and were friends with the young King Edward VI. When the young King died, in his will he expressed the desire for Lady Jane Grey to succeed him as the monarch, bypassing his step-cousins Mary and Elizabeth, who of course are famous.
Lady Jane Grey, reluctantly because she didn’t feel worthy of it, became the Queen, and her husband, Lord Dudley, who was such a go-getter really liked being part of the monarchy. Her reign lasted nine days! She was eventually executed and beheaded in the Tower of London, the victim of political power plays, and religious conflicts of the early to mid-sixteenth century. She was succeeded by Mary I, known as “Bloody Mary”, and poor Lady Jane Grey became a nine-day footnote in history. Just before she was being executed, she declared: “There is only one thing that I have ever wanted, and that is to be a Christian.” And then, quoting her own Lord right before the axe fell, she said, “Into your hands I commit my soul.” This brilliant, evidently beautiful, faithful, Christian woman had been pushed from pillar to post and destroyed at the hands of the powerful, but all the time having a sense of peace that she was a child of God. She understood what peace was. What Paul had written two thousand years ago is still this incredible sense of what it means to belong to God. Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord, Jesus Christ. No wonder it animated the Reformation! Amen.