by Kathy Staudt
For various reasons I thought a lot about the themes of “judgment,” mercy,” “justification” and grace” during Lent this year. My Young Adults Bible study group has been reading Romans, and trying to do so through the lens of the 1st century rather than the 16th century, especially when we try to figure out what Paul means by words like “sin” and “justification,” “righteousness” and “grace.” This has been aided by the recent book on Paul by Marcus Borg and John Crossan as well as some wise commentaries by scholars I respect. The liberating thing that emerges is a vision of a God who desires to bring humanity back into good, right relationship, with a God who desires good for us and loves us. “Justification” translates something closer to “getting into alignment” or “being in right relationship with” — Eugene Peterson favorst this translation in his interpretive translation of Romans in The Message. And in this view, “sin” is the human condition when we choose ways of life that are out of alignment with the will of a loving God (the “righteousness” of God) . Paul looks at the story of sin in human history through two lenses: there’s the “sin of Adam,” which is common to all of humanity — our tendency to use our freedom of choice in ways that lead us away from right relationship with God. And there’s the sin of Israel, the people God calls to live in covenant relationship, and who keep violating that covenant, even though God is faithful. Paul wants to show a God who is faithful, and whose love transforms both versions of human sin (and perhaps any others we can think of as well. . . )
The theology in Romans is of course dense and challenging and, in my experience, rewards exploration, especially with the help of some good commentaries (I especially like The Story of Romans, by VTS colleague Kathy Grieb). But a key shift from the Reformation understanding of “faith vs the law” is the re-translation of the assertion that we are “justified by faith in Jesus Christ” — modern exegetes have been observing that the more likely translation of the Greek phrase (dia pisteou jesou christou) is not “faith in Christ” but “the faithfulness of Christ.” We are brought into right relationship with God through the faithfulness of Christ, who is himself the incarnate God.
This leads to Paul’s deep theology of the Cross: that through the whole story of Incarnation-Passion-and Resurrection, God has radically re-set the relationship between humanity and Godself, and made it possible for us to “die to sin” and become “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”. There is much to ponder here, and lots of theological rabbit warrens to explore, but on the whole I have found this way of reading empowering because it gives me language for something I’ve pretty much always thought: that the event of the Cross is not an expiatory sacrifice demanded by an angry Father who sacrifices his son, but rather a voluntary and loving self-offering of Godself which resets and redeems the brokenness in the divine-human relationship, and puts all of us – Jews and Gentiles alike — into new relationship with God, as people who are “in Christ.” The language points toward mystery, and there are many questions – — but I have become convinced of the basic pattern of good news about a God who desires to heal and reconcile, in the story of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.
“Judgment,” in this reading, becomes good news — it is the way we are brought back into right relationship with God, and “grace”, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gives us assurance that this new life is possible — even in the face of what might seem like a lot of evidence to the contrary. The bottom line is to announce that a new life has begun and our job is to figure out, with God’s help, how to live it. But we can be confident that ultimately, God “has it” and “has us.”
This, at least, is a sketch of my new “elevator speech” (assuming a tall building) coming out of our current rereading of Romans. It means that this Eastertide is inviting me to reflect on the “faithfulness of Christ” in my own life and in the life of the Church, in the face of all kinds of conflict and struggle. The assurance is that God “has this,” ultimately — and so the hymn at the end of Romans 8 is ‘singing” for me in a new way this year — becoming a kind of mantra for my contemplation of the mystery of the Cross, and of the whole story that we are re-living, in this holy season: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 35-39 NRSV)
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.