What the Jesus Story Is All About!

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, October 31, 2021
Romans 3:19-28

    As some of you may know, my undergrad degree is in English and Secondary Education, and before I became a pastor, I had aspired to be a high school English teacher. This summer, I was talking with a high school English teacher in her second year as a teacher, and she was telling me how exciting teaching was, and how the school district where she was teaching was experimenting with an innovative curriculum that no longer required her students to read any Shakespeare. I believe her exact quote was, “I don’t have to teach Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders anymore!  It’s so boring and they don’t understand it anyway!”
    Well, if you’re not passionate about English literature maybe you aren’t as shocked by this statement as I was.  Not teaching Shakespeare as a high school English teacher?  Romeo and Juliet is boring?  To me, that’s like saying as a math teacher you’re not going to trouble your students with boring old multiplication and division anymore, just let the calculator do the work!  I think this teacher is sadly too young to know about the Clare Danes/Leonardo DiCaprio film version of Romeo and Juliet that was all the rage when I was in high school…that movie is definitely NOT boring.  While Shakespearean language is admittedly difficult for us who speak modern American English to understand, Shakespeare is still a part of our English-speaking history and his plays touch on themes that can still speak powerfully and truthfully to us still today. To me, it’s worth the struggle to at least expose high school students to Shakespearean drama, even if they don’t quite get it.  I would like to make the case to this teacher and others that Shakespeare is still relevant.  Today, we grapple with some scriptural texts that are difficult to understand, yet they are incredibly relevant and speak powerful truths about our faith.  And our faith, while on the surface at times obscure and hard to understand, like learning a foreign language in this secular world, is still relevant, too.  Our challenge as people of faith is to try to retell the story in an understandable and powerful way.
    Of course, today we celebrate our history as Lutheran Christians with Reformation Sunday, remembering that Martin Luther began a historical church movement about one hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.  And every year on this day, we read this passage from Romans, chapter 3, which was the biblical passage that inspired Luther to change his thinking completely about what it meant to be a Christian.  Martin Luther’s understanding of Romans then transformed the world from that point on.  Admittedly, you might take another look at that Romans reading and think you are back in high school English class reading Shakespeare.  What in the heck is Paul trying to tell us here about justification and righteousness, Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement and divine forbearance?  There are a lot of churchy words, and Paul is notorious for his theologically dense writings.  Why was Paul considered the greatest evangelist the world has ever seen again?  If we stick with it, and try to re-read and understand this little passage in Romans, however, it can be transformative, because within these verses is not just the core of what it means to be Lutheran but truly, what it means to call ourselves Christians or followers of Christ.  Paul is talking about our most basic relationship with Christ that could have a headline, “This is what God’s story is all about.”
    Perhaps if we start by trying to understand Paul’s original reason for writing this letter to the Romans, we can make sense of how this letter is relevant for our situation today.  As we’ve noted before, we live in hyper-divisive times, even in the church.  Unfortunately, while Martin Luther helped make many necessary changes in the church, the Protestant movement also created so many splinter groups that still today the Christian Church is not united but consists of an estimated 45,000 denominations worldwide.  Paul is writing to a church divided. In 49 A.D. Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, including Jewish Christians, so that the early Christian church in Rome was comprised mainly of Gentiles.  After Claudius died, Jewish Christians could return, and so those Jewish Christians coming back to the church in Rome are in conflict with their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ.  You can imagine these Jewish exiles coming back to their church in Rome saying, ”What has happened to our church?!! What are these people wearing and eating? I don’t know that hymn! That person doesn’t even LOOK like a Christian!”
At the time Paul is writing this letter to the Roman Christians, Jewish Christians are claiming that they are somehow better or more privileged by God because they have the gift of the law, the Torah, so they should be able to have more authority in shaping the traditions and culture of the Roman church.  They’re forgetting, it isn’t THEIR church, it’s Christ’s church.  And what does Paul say?  “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  God puts us all on an equal playing field.  No one can boast because the law simply reminds us that we are all sinful.  “We’re all in the same sinking boat,” is how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message Bible version.  We can’t point to anything we have done or can do that will put us in a better position with God than anyone else.  God doesn’t love us and save us because we have the right political views or go to the perfect church or follow the rules or have enough money.  Whenever we start to think we’re better than other people, our sin reminds us we’re not.
    But if we’re all sinners, if we’re all in the same sinking boat, what can we do?  Well, nothing, except putting our trust in Jesus Christ to save us, Paul goes on to say.  “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” Paul writes.  In this is the essential message of the gospel.  Put more simply, it’s not about what we do to save ourselves, it’s what God in Christ does for us to save us, by his grace as a gift.  God’s greatest gift to us is sending his son Jesus to die and be raised for us.  That’s the message!  That’s the good news!  And it is present tense – it is not true only for Paul’s Christian Church in Rome wrestling with how to unify Jews and Gentiles who disagree on many things but are unified in their belief in Christ, it’s not true only for the new Protestant Church in Germany trying to recover this gospel truth in the midst of the Church’s selling indulgences, it’s true for us, today!  The truth is, the default way of the world is to tell people there IS something we can do to save ourselves.  Just try harder. Work longer hours.  Save more money.  Lose ten pounds. Take this pill.  Find friends or a date online if you can’t in-person.  And if you can’t do those things, there must be something wrong with you.
    Instead, Paul tells us in Romans that there is something wrong, with all of us, we can quit pretending there isn’t.  But thankfully the message doesn’t end there.  Paul goes on to say that it has been God’s mission all along to make what is wrong right, to make US right.  God has set things right for us in Jesus Christ, so that even when we look around and see what a mess the world is in, we know that Jesus has done something about this mess!  “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.  The kingdom’s ours forever!”  That’s how Martin Luther put it.  Our faith is not in our house, goods, family, or honor to save us, at the end of the day, our faith is in Christ, who promises that evil cannot win, and the kingdom’s ours forever.  Our challenge today is to take this central good news message of our faith and retell it so people can understand how our faith in Jesus makes a difference in our lives.  
My friends, no matter how divided we may be on non-gospel issues related to politics, COVID, worship styles and so on, we come together on this Reformation Sunday united by our faith in Jesus’ good news.  This is the main story, that Jesus died and rose again to save us when we couldn’t save ourselves.  Let’s challenge one another to tell the old, old story in new and fresh ways.  How has God’s grace transformed your life for the better?  How does your faith keep you going in spite of the world’s mess around you?  Like Paul, like Martin Luther, let’s continue to tell people what our faith in Christ is all about.  Amen!