Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
This text from Romans today is a favorite of preachers. There’s a lot of good material in those few verses. I once heard the famed preacher Fred Craddock preach a forty-five minute sermon on just one sentence from this passage: we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words. And I myself have preached a number of funeral sermons that relied on that famous sentiment that nothing can separate us from the love of God. There are plenty of themes and verses to choose from in this passage, all of which could yield a good sermon.
But the part of this passage that caught my attention this week is the legal language. It’s a little bit obscured in most English translations, but part of what Paul is envisioning here is a courtroom scene, a courtroom where humanity is on trial.
For quite a while I’ve been a fan of legal dramas. Law & Order was on of my favorites. The original series was really interesting because each episode was split into two roughly equal parts: the first half followed the police detectives, and the second half followed the prosecuting attorneys. The spinoffs tend to focus a lot more on the police than on the lawyers. That seemed to be a trend across all legal shows after September 11, 2001. I guess we didn’t want to see the niceties of legal arguments, we wanted to see an almost vigilante form of justice. The rogue cop who didn’t follow the rules but always got the bad guy was in vogue for quite a while. 24 was a good example. I couldn’t keep watching it. I don’t like to see police brutalizing people to bring supposed justice.
Just recently I’ve begun to see a few more shows that focus on the courtroom. All Rise has been one that I’ve especially enjoyed in its first season. It’s interesting because it focus on people we don’t always see in these kind of shows. It focus on prosecutors, but it also focuses on public defenders and on judges. We get to see the thoughts and struggles of all three main parts of the adversarial courtroom: the prosecutors, the defense, and the judge. And it also takes seriously issues of race and class, which is really refreshing.
An order show I used to watch that also gave the perspective of the prosecutors and the defense—and sometimes the judge—was JAG. Yes, before NCIS became the most popular show in America, and before it spun-off NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans, it was itself a spin-off of a of a show called JAG. JAG portrayed the lives and work of officers of US Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office. This is a corps of military lawyers who investigate and argue cases involving US Navy and Marine Corp personnel.
What I found most interesting about this show is that each JAG officer might find themselves presenting the prosecution, or arguing the defense, or even acting as judge, depending on the case and the circumstances. When you see Matlock, you know that he’s going to be defending someone accused of murder. When you watch Law & Order, you know that Jack McCoy is going to be trying to put someone away. But on JAG, you never know who’s going to be arguing which part of the case, and some of the most interesting drama comes when someone gets assigned to the part of the case that they really don’t agree with. But as professionals, they need to be ready, on behalf of their nation, to act fairly as prosecutor, defender, or judge, depending on what they are called upon to do. All three roles are the responsibility of the government.
It’s not the same in civilian courts. In civilian courts, the judges work for the government. Judges are either elected or appointed, and they are held accountable by the government. Prosecutors also work for the government. They work in the name of The People of New York, or the State of Oregon, or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the British system, prosecutors work in the name of the crown, in the name of the ruling monarch.
But defense attorneys are different. They don’t work for the government. They are hired by the clients whom they defend, and they work solely on their behalf. Judging and prosecuting are the responsibility of the government, but defense is usually a private matter.
Which brings us back to Romans. You see, Paul is also talking about a court case, and Paul is also interested in who ends up getting assigned to each role. Who will be the judge, who will be the prosecutor, and who will be the defense.
Under normal circumstances, this is how Paul figures it would go down. Humanity is on trial. Obviously, God is going to be the judge. God is the government, God is the ruler, God is the monarch. As such, God is the chief judge. Remember that in the ancient world, there were no professional judges; the rulers served as judges. Jesus was judged by Pilate, who was the local Roman governor. Paul, when he was put on trial, appealed all the way to the highest authority, the Roman Emperor himself. So there is no doubt that in this trial, God is the final authority, and God will be the judge.
But who will be the prosecutor? Well, as we noted before, that is also the responsibility of the government, that is also the responsibility of the crown. So, we would assume that God would take care of that too. Humanity is accused of breaking God’s laws, so God will have to state the case against them. Perhaps God will assign some angel to the task, but it will be God’s ultimate responsibility nonetheless.
Finally, who will present the defense? Well, that will be up to us, won’t it? We, humanity will have to present our own defense. We will have to justify our own lives.
Now, under these circumstances, there is no doubt what the outcome will be. God is the judge. God is presenting the prosecution. We have to defend ourselves. And we are clearly guilty of breaking God’s laws. There is no question about it. Case closed. We are guilty. And the sentence for our crime is death.
Under normal circumstances, that is the end of the story. But, Paul says, these are not normal circumstances. God has decided to change the rules. God knows that humanity, and especially gentiles, could never be found innocent of breaking God’s laws. There is simply too much accrued guilt and sin.
But God doesn’t want to condemn all gentiles to death, so God comes up with a new plan. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God changes the rules. God changes the way this case is going to be handled.
Just like in JAG, the question is about who is going to sit in which chair. In one particular episode, a suspected terrorist was on trial. In order to ensure that he got the best defense possible, the admiral in charge of the JAG Corps decided to defend the case himself. He never argued cases himself, but this one he did. And he assigned one of his chief deputies to sit second chair, to assist him in the defense.
Something similar has happened in the divine trial of humanity. God is still serving as the judge. No one else could do that. But God is also going to serve as the defense attorney. “It is God who justifies,” Paul says. In this context, it might be translated, God is the defense attorney. God is the one who is going to make things right. God is the one who is going to make humanity righteous, the one who is going to argue that humanity is in fact righteous enough to receive the reward. God thinks that this case is so important, that God is going to present the defense Godself.
And that is not all. God has also chosen a very able deputy to sit second chair. To assist in the defense, God has chosen Jesus. Paul says, “Christ Jesus, the one who died, rather, the one who was raised, who also is at the right hand of God is also the one who appeals for us.” God the Father is heading up the defense team. Jesus the Son is backing him up. We’ve got ourselves some good advocates on this case.
So God is judging. God is also presenting the defense, along with Jesus. But who is going to argue for the prosecution? Who is going to present the case against us? And this is the truly amazing part. As I translate it, Paul says, “If God is for us, who is against us?… Who will bring charges against God’s chosen ones? God is the defense attorney. Who will (dare) be the prosecutor?”
The simple answer is, no one. This is the image we are left with. God is sitting behind the bench as judge. God is also sitting at the defense table, along with Jesus. But the prosecutor’s chair is empty. With God on the side of the defense, there is no one who will argue for the prosecution. And without a prosecutor, there is no case at all. Charges must be dropped. The accused must be set free. We, humanity, must be released from the eternal punishment of death.
“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” Paul asks. “Oppression or calamity or persecution or famine or want of clothing or danger or dagger?… No, in all these things we are overwhelmingly victorious through the one who has loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither heavenly messengers nor earthly rulers, neither things that are beginning nor things that are lingering, nor armies, neither height nor depth, nor any other created thing will have the power to separate us from God’s love, which is in Christ Jesus, our master.”
If God is for us, who can be against us? No one. Who can separate us from the love of God? No one. God loves us with a love that is beyond our comprehension. God changes the rules on our account. God defends us even though our sins are indefensible. Nothing, nothing at all, can ever separate from God’s love for us that is displayed in Christ Jesus, our Lord.