“Do you know how helpless you feel if you have a full cup of coffee in your hand and you start to sneeze?” -Jean Kerr
The words uttered by this famous author and playwright somehow humorously capture the paradoxical nature of life. Everyone has those days where they feel as though they are holding on to something good and then out of nowhere, you have to choose: the cup of liquid gold in your hand, or your pride as you try not to spray mucus all over the person in front of you. As humans, sometimes we try to do it all; we try to manage the uncontrollable and, in doing so, we lose everything. In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul talks about why it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or how long your list of accomplishments is, you are still just a helpless vessel trying to save their morning coffee.
Let me clarify: you, yourself, are not distinctly a failure. In reading Paul’s letter, it is necessary to remember that he is not trying to throw you under the bus despite how much it feels like it. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul says:
“There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” (v. 9-11 ESV).
The significance of this passage lies in the opposition Paul creates out of Jews and Greeks. In the Ancient Near Eastern times, the Jews were regarded as those who held ‘the Law’. They were the only ones who had access to God and of whom God would talk to and work through. Way back in the day when God promised Abraham that he would “surely multiply [his] offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:7 ESV), he meant that it was through the line of the Jews that Jesus would come and save the world. In order to uphold this, he used Moses to reveal ‘the Law’ to the Israelites.
Given that statement, why is Paul telling the Romans God “shows no partiality”? The answer: Jesus. Understanding that Christ came into the world, lived life as fully man and God, and died – meaning He was entirely separated from God – is central to this idea. When Christ came into the world and died, then rose to life three days later, he defeated the ancient law. Many Sunday School teachers liken this image to a man standing on the edge of a great chasm and looking across to see God on the other side with no way to cross. Then, introducing the idea of Jesus, the chasm is bridged and the man can unite himself with the Heavenly Father. Jesus came to wipe out the old and bridge the uncrossable chasm that all of humanity has the opportunity to enter the Kingdom of Heaven if we so choose, the Jew first and also the Greeks.
Now, having that knowledge, readers can rest assured in the redemptive power of Christ. However, the reader cannot simply rely on that truth. Turning back to the original quote cited above, no matter how hard we try, sometimes it all falls apart.
So, how does this all connect?
Paul says here that “tribulation and distress” will come for everyone. Not just the good or the bad, but everyone who commits ‘evil’. To clarify further, it is necessary to understand that evil lies within everyone: not just non-Christians or Christians. The term evil has such a negative connotation that it has created a hierarchical perception of Christians versus non-Christians. Christians: you are no better than the rest. Be sure to remember that. Non-Christians: when you hear the term ‘evil’, it is equated with sin: sin is the reason that when everything seems to be going so well, all of the sudden you have to sneeze. It is innately in everyone – Christians and non-Christians – because of the original disobedience to God way back when with Adam and Eve. It has infected the rest of the world like an unstoppable, sickening pandemic.
It seems like out of nowhere our life can turn upside-down without notice. A loved one dies, you lose your job, mom is diagnosed with cancer. For some reason our lives cannot maintain some sort of positive homogeneity. So why does Paul say “glory and honor and peace” come to everyone who does good? This prompts the question: why do good people get the short end of the stick? Again, sin. Our actions can be immeasurably ‘good’, but without the redemptive power of Christ, we’re held to that sinful evil that Satan coerced us into.
Understand, you are helpless on your own: the Jew first and also the Greek. Everyone, no matter who you are, what you have done, or what you believe, you are entirely helpless. My one desire is that readers will understand that God looked down on the world and recognized that helplessness. He recognized the pain and the work of Satan and He sent his son to take all of that on.
In this Holy Week we remember the most prominent example of this: on Sunday morning, Jesus came riding into Jerusalem being praised by everyone. He had it all, but by Friday night he was hanging dead, skin ripped to pieces, naked on a cross, condemned by those same people. But He endured it all for you. For everyone. The difference between Jesus and humans was that although you hold on to that cup of coffee as tightly as you can, Jesus steps in and picks it up out of your hands when you have to sneeze, taking on the disgusting mucus of our lives.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV)