Is there any phrase in the English language that’s stranger than “to die for”? After all, when we claim something is “to die for,” we’re not describing something that’s as tragic as death itself. I’ve never heard anyone say, for instance, that mass murder or poverty or sickness was “to die for” – even though those can cause death. When we say something is to “die for,” we mean that it’s especially beautiful or wonderful. We say it about things like the steak at the supper club, the warm sand in Jamaica, a cocktail party – it was “to die for.”
At the same time, that bit of our language reflects a truth – there are important things to die for and things you just never would, right? The marine who falls on a grenade in close quarters combat so that his squad doesn’t die – that’s dying for friends, your team, life, other’s survival – things to die for… Perhaps you and I would do the same. But there are certain categories where that wouldn’t apply so readily. For the boss who fired you and called you incompetent? Would you die? For the person who disregards your friendship? Would you die? For the neighbor who regularly reports your home association infractions? Would you die? For the looter, the murderer, the embezzler, the rapist, the drug-addict, the foul-mouthed, the gossip, the assumer-of-bad-things, the mean-girl, the complainer? More than likely we would not…
In Romans 5 Paul says that what was “to die for” was the tragic, flawed stuff, and people – the worst. He affirms the truth we know by experience: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man…” Even if it happens, “to die for”, it’s rare… But Paul presents something unexpected, “[Jesus] Christ died for the ungodly.”
That word’s interesting – it’s the opposite of “being a good, religious person”. In Paul’s language, the good version would be ευσεβεια – people who are concerned about worshiping God and doing good. That’s who you might fall on a grenade for, right? But here it’s ασεβεια – evil-doers, people who don’t do “what’s good”. And, according to Paul, exactly those who have not done what’s good – that’s who Jesus Christ considered “to die for…”
If we’re paying attention to Paul, though, he’s saying much more than that. v.6 “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” That means, Paul considers you in that group too. But you know that’s true. Some of the things we’d consider “not to die for” – being mean, harsh, gossip, hate, selfish, taddle-tail, abusive, dismissive, excessive, self-serving – those we are… And you’d call it exactly the wrong time – when you were most unprepared, when you didn’t look your best, when you fell again into that sin you know you’re tempted to. When you have not been appealing or good looking or particularly moral – along with the worst of the worst. When you have been, as Paul said a few chapters earlier, part of the “all [people who] have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” [because that’s actually God’s measure of being godly – never, ever falling short…] Us, when we were part of this world at its worst, Christ considered “to die for.”
It was in our readings today – for Israel who complained after all God’s mighty miracles, still they questioned whether he was even with them – and he gave them water. Or at Jacob’s well? Jesus meets the woman who wants the water he can give – what must she do. He points out, in all the things she’s done already, she’s not really the paragon of God’s moral measure… But to her Jesus offers living water, water of a kind she didn’t know she needed. One that’s not related to all the hard work she might want to do – regardless of the poor work she’d already done – water that flows from the living stream of Jesus’ work. He is the Messiah who has come into the world – to teach us…
To teach us this: v.8 “That God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In our love, our world’s love – the best are loved, the achievers win, and power makes a difference – the more the better for you or me – and, if there were a god of the universe, surely he’d want all that in us… God’s own love works like this – when we were still powerless… when we were sinners… for the ungodly… That’s who God considered “to die for…” – how unique!
St. Paul says that God’s own love is that he loved you before you could be good… when you were worst… and when you still are. He says, v.1 “we have been justified” or declared not guilty of anything we have ever done. And that comes to you and me, not by our own work or achievements, but “through faith”, which is just trust in the work of someone else: “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Practically, it’s something like this: Imagine someone you have deeply hated or you have hurt, now saving your life. That would be unexpected, unique even… Now imagine that person you once despised, hated, or harmed not only saving your life, but also actually giving their life for yours, perhaps by taking a bullet. Wouldn’t that completely overhaul the way you look at life?
That’s precisely what God has done for us in Christ. Jesus Christ died for sinners – gave his own life of perfect love for God and never falling short as the payment for our shortcomings, for our sins. And Paul says, this is God’s own love for you. There is nothing like this out there in the world. It’s unique – God’s own. And it overhauls your outlook on life because it’s hopeful.
Somebody once called hope the oxygen of the soul. Because we’re creatures stuck “in time”, forever moving into an unknown future, we’re likely to get stuck, paralyzed with fear about what’s coming. Hope is God’s gift to us in this broken world–it keeps us moving.
If hope is what keeps us going, worry is what makes us cautious in our steps. If hope helps us to stride forward with confidence, worry is what makes us slouch and duck and cower in fear. And I guess we could have lots to worry about – will my job last? my health is bad… I don’t have any good relationships… have you been good enough? it looks like death is on the horizon…
God’s own love is full of hope that drives our worries away. To folks like us Paul says, v.1 “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Paul says: God’s love is where you live – whether Omaha or Paris, Fallujah or Guanajuato – you’re in grace. Your relationship with God is peace–everything is in order now because of Jesus.
Perhaps we’d say: God’s own love is about what he has done for us despite who we are – and it fills up our lives with a hope that works no matter what’s being done around us. By faith, God’s Spirit is ours, and he has poured God’s own love into our hearts so that, no matter where we are or what we have or what we see, this hope is ours.
Even when the time seems just wrong, even in suffering – like illnesses that weaken us and kill us, or disappointment that disillusions us, or plans that fall apart, life’s direction that goes awry — even in sufferings, God’s own love makes a mark on your life. It produces an unexpected chain reaction. God’s love is the place we live after all – and so confident are we that we can boast without the fear of being disappointed – he will follow through. So even when suffering comes, God is working – working perseverance to keep on pressing forward confident he loves us – and perseverance works character that you’re tested, strengthened, ready for more – and character like that keeps our eyes on the hope God has promised – because of Jesus Christ it is the glory of heaven for you and me no matter how inglorious it is right now.
By his amazing grace, like this, God considers us “to die for…” Because of what Jesus has done in life and death at his cross, we are at peace, in grace. It’s unique… it’s full of hope… it’s God’s own love…and it’s yours.