Are You Ashamed?
“I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith,” writes Paul in his letter to the Romans. We see the word, “ashamed” and wonder: why on earth would anyone be ashamed of the gospel, the “good news” of Jesus, who gives us life?
Normally, we’re ashamed of bad news or embarrassing news – news that I am associated with or responsible for. For instance, someone might be ashamed of a moral indiscretion on their part: they had an affair or drank too much and got into a fight. Or they’re ashamed to be identified with someone or something that is an embarrassment: maybe it’s about the past. “I’m ashamed at how our country treated Vietnam veterans when they came back from the war.” “I’m ashamed to admit that last year I placed a bet on the Twins to win the World Series.” Not ashamed this year, though! Nothing but good news from the boys of summer, huh?
Nor should we be ashamed of the gospel; it is the good news that Jesus brings us life. But Paul wouldn’t have brought up being ashamed unless some people were ashamed of the gospel. What might that have been? Well, in Paul’s time, it appears that the whole idea that God would die – and in a crucifixion, no less – was a scandalous idea or at the very least, just plain foolish. Maybe some were ashamed to admit they followed such a strange or weak God.
Are people today ashamed of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ? I never saw anyone as ashamed as Jerry. Jerry was an aspiring cool guy in the seventh grade, trying to look and act tough and get in with the cool long-haired kids. Enter Donald, who’d been an acquaintance of Jerry’s since grade school. Donald was smart and nerdy and kind of lovable in an awkward way. There was nothing remotely tough or cool about him. And so, Jerry was the kind of guy who would pretend he didn’t know Donald when they were at school.
Well, one day, Donald passed Jerry in the hallway between classes. Jerry was walking with the cool, tough guys. Just as Donald passed him, he gave Jerry the peace sign and said, “peace be with you, Jerry.” Now, what a sweet, pastoral little greeting for a seventh grader! But how do you think Jerry responded? Well, I know because he told me about it, and he was ashamed that Donald acknowledged their relationship and then (gasp!) blessed him. For Jerry, how would the tough guys ever respect him again after they found out he had a peace-loving nerdy little friend? I guess you could say poor Donald was a “party pooper.”
Do we ever treat our Christian identity like it was Donald? Do we treat Jesus this way, namely as a “goody two shoes” or a party pooper that we want to keep our distance from around the people we want to impress?
And if Paul is concerned about being ashamed, the words he chooses don’t necessarily help. For instance, Paul writes in our lesson today about God’s righteousness and what it means for us to be righteous. Kind of churchy, pretentious word, no? Who wants to be righteous? Unless it’s the Righteous Brothers, of course.
But do stay with me. The word righteous is the whole key to Paul’s point, and not in the way you think.
Now, to us, righteous means a quality, or qualities. Pure and Holy. As the word would suggest, right. Someone who is righteous is morally and spiritually pure and right. Usually, we think, a righteous person is not very down to earth, not exactly “one of the gang.” A goody two shoes!
And far too often, one who is righteous – or thinks they are – views themselves as morally and spiritually superior to others and therefore has the power to judge others. We might call such a person self-righteous.
Isn’t this another reason to be ashamed of our Christian faith? There are many impressions out there about Christianity as harsh, judgmental, foolish and holier-than- thou. If we say we believe in Jesus, maybe people will think the same about us! I think for more moderate, mainline Christians like ourselves, sometimes we get embarrassed by our association with more right wing, judgmental Christians.
William Sloane Coffin, a notable American preacher and writer in the 20th century, was known to challenge college professors when they made disparaging comments about Christianity. You know how it is with critics of the Christian Church, because they often focus only on the hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental types out there. But Coffin’s question to them was always, “Why, in your classes, do you judge art, music and literature by the best examples, but judge Christianity by its worst examples?”
I’m totally with him on that. Usually when I hear atheists or agnostics critiques of Christian faith, I agree with them. I don’t believe in the God that they’re describing either! It’s based on a petty and mean theology, not the God of love and life!
Then Paul asks in Romans, “what if God is not about finger wagging, but about life?” And yet when Paul writes in our lesson today about “the righteousness of God is revealed,” we instinctively cringe a bit…maybe. The Bible often talks about the righteousness of God, and one thing’s for sure, if anyone deserves to be called righteous, it’s God. He’s the real deal, right? But the trouble is, from where we sit in this life of ours, the righteousness of God doesn’t necessarily do us much good. In fact, it just confirms the image many have of God as perfect, distant and very displeased with us for screwing up all the time. As a result, I think the image that many people have of God might be an angry man with long white hair and a beard.
For many years, Martin Luther saw God this way. Before he started the Reformation, Luther was a Roman Catholic monk and scholar. Luther often read and taught his students the verses we read for today, especially in verses 16 and 17 that talk about “the righteousness of God.” But privately, Luther wrote about what he really thought about the “righteousness of God.”
I hated this phrase, “the righteousness of God”, which I had been taught to understand…that God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous. But I, who, however blamelessly I lived as monk, felt myself to be a sinner before God, with a deeply troubled conscience, and could not rely on being reconciled through the satisfaction I could carry out myself, did not love-no, hated-the just God who punishes sinners; and I silently rebelled against God…that God should threaten us with his righteousness and his anger.
So, obviously, Luther tried very hard to be as good and pleasing to God as he could be, but he felt he was never good enough. He knew very well the unholy thoughts and feelings that lived in him, even if on the outside he looked every bit the Holy Monk. The bottom line is he knew God was righteous and that he was not. And this tormented him, not only because he felt inadequate, but because he was bracing for the punishment he fully expected from God.
But one day, as Luther was reading Romans 1:16-17, he suddenly read these words as if for the first time: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…for in it, the righteousness of God is revealed…as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’” And suddenly it hit him: God is not against us but for us! The righteousness of God is not an unbridgeable gap or a sledgehammer of judgment, it’s God’s never-ending desire to close that gap. God’s righteousness is about God’s love and God’s faithfulness to his children, that he would come down to us in a life-giving, life-saving relationship.
As Paul points out in Philippians, “Jesus did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself of power, taking the form of a servant.” That’s the power of the gospel right there. God shows up where we live to share the life of God with us. It’s what drove God to get up off his throne and become one of us. Again, this is faithfulness on God’s part. No matter how difficult we were and are, “God is patient and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as scripture reminds us.
So, the righteousness of God means close to the opposite of what had been assumed for centuries: It is not God’s propensity to condemn life but to give life! It is God’s faithfulness to us. No matter our failings, God is faithful to us. And that is why we can have faith in God. The Reformation was born with this insight from Romans 1:17. And as many historians have suggested, Luther is second only to Jesus for his impact on the history of the western world. Luther grasped – as Paul did before him – the faithfulness of God to us, the lengths that God was willing to go to bear our burdens and share God’s life with us.
That’s not really something to be ashamed of, is it? Amen.