The Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, Romans 5:1-11
February 24, 2014
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton 

Physical therapists.

Anyone here either been to one—or know someone who has been to one? Raise your hands, raise them high. OK; thank you.

They’re pushy people—really pushy people!—and certainly don’t seem very nice. They make folks stretch out what doesn’t want to be stretched out and to work that which would rather be left alone.

Pushy people.

But physical therapists can do wonderful work for us; wonderful work, indeed. You see, here’s the problem: If there’s something in us that’s hurting, we tend to favor it, pull back; and to use other muscles and other tendons in ways that make the hurting part even weaker and throw our whole body off balance. So these pushy people stretch us out, so that we can get strong and get back in balance.

That’s a pretty good metaphor for what God often does in our spiritual life.

Just as in our physical pain we tend to pull in, shut down, to favor one thing, to avoid another, and cause ourselves injury, we can do the same in the way of the Spirit. We can hunker down in the comfortable, or what seems to be comfortable. It seems to be working—but we’re avoiding all sorts of things that need to be in play. Even experienced Christians can need some serious spiritual therapy. And our good God stretches us out, and gets us focusing and working in ways that we would otherwise tend to avoid.

We all have our own particular comfort and avoidance zones. This also seems true for “denominations” or particular Christian traditions as a whole, which have their various styles, approaches, and emphases.

Don’t get me wrong; I deeply cherish the Episcopal Church—and can’t imagine being in any other Christian fellowship. But there are areas from which we, too, are likely to pull back—just like everybody else, in their own ways: areas that we’re inclined to leave alone because, at least to us, maybe they’re not the most comfortable territory. So, in a spirit of gratitude and appreciation, I’ll just name a few things that we may be a little too likely to hear in our own particular Christian context.

“Saint Paul; don’t like him!”

“John’s Gospel; Hmmm, really?”

“Do we have to say those Creeds?”

And let’s not even talk about the doctrines of the Cross! Not to be judgmental, but I when hear things like that frequently enough, I sometimes wonder, “What’s left?” Maybe a few excerpts here and there, perhaps valued more for what they are not, then for what they are.

The truth of the matter is that in our spiritual life we often need to head into the area of discomfort. Not go around it—not evade it—but allow ourselves to get stretched out, and see, precisely in that difficult encounter what gift God may have to give to us.

We may be too likely to pull back when we hit one of our immediate, visceral reactivities. But, “I don’t like it!” may not be a very suitable ultimate value judgment.. Certainly, making space for a range of interpretations, respecting the place of questions and doubts in the process of faith are a valued part of our particular Christian tradition. We don’t bind ourselves to ridged, wooden, unquestioning literalisms. Nevertheless, we need to admit that sometimes not only our health, but our very life, may depend on learning to love what is good for us.

Maybe those avoided parts are there for a good reason, after all. Maybe there’s some One else who knows better what we need.

All of which brings us to today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the fifth chapter, verses one through eleven: Let’s get past our reactivities, lean in, and see what gifts God may have to give.

“Since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1)

Wonderful words, but with more than a hint of disquiet in them. You mean, we weren’t at peace before? And the passage gets worse;

“While we were still weak at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6)

“Ungodly.” Who’s Paul talking about here?

Even more intense;

“God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by (the) blood will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (5:8-9)

We were weak; we were sinners; we had even become God’s enemies. What possibly could Paul, or the Spirit speaking through Paul, be talking about here?

Is it really that bad? We’d rather think not. There’s a part in us that would rather have a non-intimidating, cut-down-to-size kind of god. This is the kind of god we hear about in the false gospel of mere human niceness. It goes something along these lines: We’re so nice, that this cut-down-to-size god is infatuated with us. We’re so nice, god has a crush on us.

Well, this sort of thing may feel good for a little while, but deep down we know that that’s not the God we need at crunch time. Deep down we know that’s not the God we need when the stakes are high, and we’re facing something terrible: looking at some heartbreaking, unresolved crisis; looking at death, our own or the death of someone we care about more than anybody else in the world. Deep down we know, that the God with the both the intention and the ability to deal with anything and everything, is the God who can be rather intimidating. The God for whom we have to get stretched out to meet again. Maybe meet again, for the first time.

Here’s the problem with thinking that we’re so nice that God is infatuated with us—the phony gospel of niceness: We know that we are not entirely that nice. What about the un-nice places? How about the broken and hurting places? How about the miserable places where we’ve blown it; where we’ve been hurtful? The “nice” phony god is of no help there. We’re on our own if that’s the kind of god we have—but that is not the kind of God we have.

See, this overwhelmingly intimidating message that we heard in Romans, chapter five is a message of a God who has a love big enough, deep enough and can reach far enough as to embrace even the likes of us, no matter what. No matter what!

We were weak; we were sinners; we were even God’s enemies. The grace of God we meet in Jesus Christ is big enough and strong enough to reach us even there. No “too far” or no “too deep” or “too hard” for that kind of God: The God we meet in Jesus Christ “and him crucified.”                (1 Corinthians 2:2)

This is a God who has not played it safe on the sidelines. This is the God who has met, who has embraced, who has shared, who has experienced our own vulnerability—on our terms. This is the God who in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, was stretched out—to the uttermost—on the hard wood of the Cross: Stretched out, broken, poured out, holding nothing back, for you and for me—so that we might have the Peace that none other and nothing other can give.

That’s the God we can trust. That’s the God who can handle anything. That’s a God we know will never let us down, come what may.

“Not only that, we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts thorough the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Praise be. Amen.

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