Third Sunday of Lent


Paul’s Gospel

Having been justified by faith, we have peace before God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand by faith.   And we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we boast in tribulations knowing that tribulation produces endurance and endurance character and character hope, which very hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  

Romans 5:1–4  

     This text is an inspired summary of means and meaning of salvation as Paul knew it and taught it in years 35–65 the politically terrible years of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.  The underlying image is of a petitioner seeking access to an imperial official whom we are not on our own merits and standing able to approach, but in Paul’s Letter to the Romans it is not Tiberius but the Eternal Majesty, in whose gift lies every good thing, including the possibility of sharing in the glory that belongs to Him alone, in whose presence we are not worthy to stand.

     To gain such access the petitioner must be justified, he must be right, but here the word is a passive voice meaning, “having been made right,” made worthy to enjoy the promises of Christ, the passive voice indicating that this is the work of God in us.  It is the presupposition of the use of the words justify and justification that there is a standard that God expects His sons and daughters to meet, a standard before which, as Paul writes later in this text, we stand helpless.   We know that this standard is more than the keeping of the old law, for the entire Sermon on the Mount teaches that its propositions are to be surpassed, and we know that this law-surpassing goodness is the gift given at Pentecost, the gift of the new heart formed by God’s own love.

      Later in the text of Romans Paul elaborates the means through which we have been made right     The ground and power of the form-giving gift of the Holy Spirit is the sacrifice of Jesus through the path that begins with the temptation in the wilderness and ends with the words from the holy cross, it is finished.    We, Christians of all times and places, have gained access to the Eternal Majesty through the cross-bought indwelling grace that makes us right before God through Christ who, when we were helpless, died for us, so that we are justified by His blood.    Now reconciled by His death we are “saved by His life,” for our justification is the prelude to a life that has certain characteristics.   It is faith, then perfected by the gift of God’s spirit, charity  poured into our hearts, then sustained by hope.  Hope that third   great theological virtue, is realized in endurance, in staying the course, a virtue rooted in the certainty of faith that God who has fulfilled His promise that the Comforter would come will also fulfill His promise that He would return to take us to Himself when we will share fully in His glory. This endurance, says Paul, produces character, and character in its turn ratifies and enables hope.   

           Formally, hope is a gift given by baptism, but it, like all the theological virtues, is realized in a life lived, and it is remarkable that Paul makes hope the result of endurance as well as its ground, when we know that endurance is in a profound way a result of hope.  But it is this way with the virtues, even the revealed theological virtues; given in baptism, they are realized in a life lived, the new life that Jesus’ resurrection has purchased for us, so it can be said that we are saved first by His death and then by His life.  Our sin-scarred nature dies in baptism, to rise empowered for a life lived with Him and in Him.   We are called to follow Christ’s teachings, but there is more, for we share in His life; living “in Christ” is a favored theme of Saint Paul.  Love and hope are a prelude to life in Christ, and it is by being in Christ through long years that we are new creatures (II Corinthians 5:17).   The love poured into our hearts is realized in a life lived and being in Him is more than an idea or an expectation.     

          Incidentally, the second occurrence of the phrase “by faith” or “in faith” in the text from Romans 5 set as superscript above has an unusual history that illustrates a problem, for it is not found in several of the great fifth-century texts of Romans on which our Bible is based but is included in the great manuscript named Sinaiticus, which because of its importance is designated by the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph.   Because of this anomaly there will always be doubt as to whether these words were in the text as Paul wrote it.  Interestingly enough, the English words translating the Greek “in faith” are in both the great sixteenth-seventeenth century translations, the Authorized or King James translated from the Greek and the Douay-Rheims from the Latin.   The RSV, which is more scholarly, more knowledgeable of the manuscript tradition than the sixteenth century translators could have been, Sinaiticus having been brought into modern scholarship only in 1844, relegates the second use of “in faith” in Romans 5 to a footnote because great Greek manuscripts of the fifth century omit it.

          Did someone, the copier in the line of copiers that transmitted the text of Codex Sinaiticus, or perhaps the translators of the Renaissance versions, considering these two words essential to Paul’s meaning, resolved the question by assuming that these words must have stood in Paul’s autograph.  Perhaps a copyist thought the sense of the text required “in faith,” for after all the fact that everyman is justified by the gift of faith is central to the teaching of Paul and of the Church, and as the Epistle of James (2:14–26) and II Peter (3;14–17) show, justification by faith misunderstood as sufficient for salvation apart from a life lived was controversial. Or perhaps its inclusion was a dittography, the accidental reiteration of words occurring earlier in the text.  And why except through carelessness would ancient witnesses such as Codex Bezae and Codex Alexandrinus omit the phrase? We do know that the temptation to perfect the text existed, a temptation of which the several endings to Mark are sufficient witness.  Mark ended too abruptly to suit the  sensibilities of someone.  

          In the end the history of the second refence to faith in the text of Romans 5:1–2 is a parable of the fraught relation between textual criticism and the tradition that contemporary biblical scholarship necessarily creates, to which the only answer is the authority of the Church as the keeper of the text.   

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