We continue our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans this weekend. While Paul’s dominant theme in the letter is that of Christ as ‘the Righteous One,’ the messiah who offers the faithful obedience to Yahweh that had been Israel’s calling. Christ’s faithfulness in Israel’s stead points out a necessary complimentary theme for Paul. Because Israel had not given God the faithfulness God was due, and thus had not been ‘a light to the nations,’ judgment was now due Israel just as it was to the other nations.
Christ the ‘Righteous One’ is also the Christ the vicarious sufferer.
This resonates with a passage from Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, which I recently finished reading.
For those of you not familiar with him, Moltmann is not only Steve Larkin’s doppelganger Moltmann is one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century.
As a young man, Moltmann served in the Nazi army. He did so near the end of the war when both sides were nearing desperation and taking desperate measures. Only after the war did Moltmann learn of his country’s shameful crimes with which he had, unwittingly, abetted.
Paradoxically, Moltmann also credits this experience with his conversion to Christianity. Having been taken captive, Moltmann was sent to POW camp run by Scottish Christians. In the camp, Moltmann was given a bible, which he began reading in the evenings ‘without much understanding,’ Moltmann confesses. That is, until he came across the psalms of lament, Psalm 39 in particular:
“I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself.
My life is as nothing before thee.
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry.
Hold not thou thy peace at my tears,
for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.’
Reading those words was for Moltmann like ‘an echo from my own soul, and it called that soul back to God.’
And reading Mark’s Gospel in which Christ’s last words are ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Moltmann came to see the assailed, forsaken Christ as our ‘brother in suffering.’ Moltmann goes on (in a very Wesleyan way, I’d add):
“I have never decided for Christ once and for all, as is often demanded of us. I have decided again and again…’
As he concludes the chapters on his time in the prison camp, Moltmann makes the powerful observation that the Christian faith of their captors was the only thing that enabled his fellow prisoners to become ‘human again:’ by treating the German prisoners as ‘brothers in Christ,’ exposing them to the truth of their country’s sins without condemning them as less than human and by offering, in Christ’s name, forgiveness.
Likewise, Moltmann says, his captors- many of whom had been victims of Nazi terror- let it be known that ‘in Christ’ was the only ground upon which they could ever possibly forgive.