St. Paul seems so confident. “We know, brothers and sisters, that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28.)
(As I mentioned last week) We have been reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans ever since we got back into Ordinary Time in late June and all during July we have been reading exclusively from chapter 8.
Before I preach a bit on this magnificent affirmation of faith, a bit about this letter.
St. Paul’s letter to the church in Roman is found immediately after the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. Most likely written in the late 50’s from Corinth, Paul was writing to a small Christian community in the capital city of the world. He longed to visit them. He would eventually, but not in the way he anticipated. He would be taken there as a prisoner and eventually martyred.
The Letter to the Romans is St. Paul’s most systematic presentation of his theology, his understanding of God’s action in the world. Hence it can be difficult to understand at times. Allow me to give just a short summary of the letter.
Paul begins by introducing himself with these words: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” How’s that for an opening line? How many of us would put that on our business card or the tag line on our Twitter account?
“Slave of Christ” means that Paul belongs to Christ, that Christ is his master, that Christ is in control and that he is “all in.”
He is also an apostle, meaning “one who is chosen and sent” to proclaim the gospel, the good news of God.
This sets to the stage for the rest of chapter one and two where he articulates the problem, the “bad news.” St. Paul was not naïve. He names the problem “sin.” The world was a mess – just like now.
Caught in the effects of sin, of our inhumanity to one another, of the degradation of the human person, of the darkness of evil from which we cannot extricate ourselves by our own efforts – just like now – St. Paul states that we need a savior, one who can truly save us.
We don’t need another great teacher or savvy politician or ingenious entrepeneur. Now, we need someone who can lift us out of a condition that we are unable to get out of on our own.
As chapters one and two lay out the problem, chapters three through eight lay out the great solution – Jesus Christ. This is the good news, the gospel Paul preaches, why he is a slave of and one possessed by Christ.
The solution, the good news is this: out of God’s great love, compassion and care for us, the Father sends his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ into the very depth of our sin, our human condition in all of its vileness.
Then through Jesus’ self-emptying, sacrificial love manifest in his suffering, passion and death, he frees us from sin and thereby brings us into communion with God and reconciles us to God, we who were alienated from God through our sin.
We are thus “justified” through the blood of Christ. This great Pauline term of justification simply means that things are “set right,” with God, put back into proper order and that which was all “off kilter” is now put right, set on the right trajectory once again.
This good news invites us into its freedom as adopted children of God.
Yet, in St. Paul’s wisdom he realizes that sin still has a hold on us even when we believe in and seek to follow Jesus. We enter into the “process” of salvation, seeking to follow Jesus more and more deeply, all the while knowing these famous words from chapter seven apply to us as well:
“What I do, I do not understand. For, I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want…Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
St. Paul’s frail humanity becomes the very cause of his throwing himself entirely on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ to whom he strives to surrender more and more, trusting ever more deeply that Christ is the answer, the justification, the hope who sets all things right.
Therefore he can state with deepest certainty: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Where does St. Paul find such confidence? In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. No one had ever risen from the dead, nor ever will.
This is the Victor and the victory. This is salvation and justification. This is fulfillment of the new covenant. This is the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price worth selling all to possess – in order to be possessed.
Yet it was only after Paul, as Saul, was encountered by the risen Christ that he came to understand this mystery. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
We too need to be “encountered” by Jesus Christ over and again on our journey of faith. We need to allow Jesus Christ to call us to transformation into him. As St. Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
It is this encounter, this personal relationship with Jesus Christ that we celebrate at every Eucharist, in every confession, in every Sacrament. These encounters give us the confidence “that all things work for good for those who love God.” Yes, even those disappointments and seeming failures; those sufferings and sadnesses; those losses and discouragements.
In Christ we find our hope, our strength and our ultimate victory.
Therefore, I invite you into an encounter with Christ at the “Healing the Whole Person” retreat August 17-19. Together may we experience anew “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”