OK, sports fans. Has anybody here ever seen the show American Ninja Warrior? It’s such a fun show, you get to see amazing feats of coordination, endurance, and strength.
All right, if you don’t watch it, I’ll do my best to describe it. The show is like a crazy mix of obstacle course, endurance, strength training, and general ninja-ness. Athletes compete to complete a course where they might have to leap frog across bouncy little pillars over water, then swing across ropes, land on a spiderweb-like-rope-ladder to climb, then run up a curved wall, do the rings, the monkey bars, balance moving forward between two walls, anything you can think of that would be, like, hard and superhuman to do.
One of the tests of strength the contestants do is called the “super salmon ladder”. If you haven’t seen this particular course, envision an enormous ladder without the center steps. It’s these tall two pillars, approximately 4 stories high, with slats running up the side so you can put a metal bar across it. What the athletes do is “climb” the ladder by hanging from the bar and moving it rung by rung just with sheer muscle power. Then, they just hang from the bar, over a pool of water, going, up and up and up, 40 feet or more in the air. It’s amazing. They do wear a safety harness, in case they fall.
So, why I am talking American Ninja Warrior’s Super Salmon ladder in church?
Believe or not, the Super Salmon ladder gives us a good visual for understanding some of Paul’s teachings, especially some of the theological jargon that comes up in today’s passage from Romans.
Paul’s own writings are loaded with athletic imagery. This is on purpose. Paul lived in a Greek culture that loved, loved, loved sports. Athletes would come together every two years during Paul’s time for the Isthmian Games, kind of Olympic style competitions in footraces, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus and javelin, the long jump, and chariot racing, [and poetry reading and singing (what?)] Paul sprinkles his letters with athletic metaphors because people understood sports, maybe better than they understood Paul’s long-winded theological arguments.
So, in one of his arguments in v 5:1, Paul says we are “justified” through faith in Jesus Christ. The word is related to type-setting, where you have to justify - or line all the words up neatly on the page. To justify something is to line it up, make it right.
Justified here means being made right with God. Paul teaches that because we are human beings who constantly fail to live up to God’s standards for us, we need a way to get right with God again.
Justification in American Ninja Warrior: if we’re going up the “Super Salmon Ladder” of life, we can’t get it right when we’re trying to do it under the sheer force of our own power. We’ll just keep missing the bar placement, again and again. We just don’t have enough strength to land everything right all the time - sometimes - most of the time - we’re in situations, where it’s actually really hard to know what’s “right” - or there’s no “right” and “wrong”, just “bad” and “less bad” choices - and we just have to hope we’re aiming generally for the right rung.
But, because we’re humans who constantly mess things up, we can’t get right with God again under our own power. Because if we do it on our own, we’ll mess up. It’s a Catch-22.
So, we try and miss, and then we try and we miss again, and then we miss again.
So, we need help. “Justification by faith” is like having Jesus both as coach and team-mate. Knowing about Jesus’ life and teachings helps us know right from wrong. And having Jesus as team-mate is like having someone help us by pulling on the other side of the bar, making sure the bar is balanced and we stay lined up as we move up, up, up.
Actually, the way my theology professor in seminary visually described justification by faith was a drawing on the whiteboard of Jesus grabbing onto God, and us grabbing onto Jesus’ ankles with our faith, who pulls us up to God.
Justification by faith means that we have faith that Jesus has made us right with God, through no power of our own.
So, yay, we believe in Jesus, we go, up up up, we ring the bell, we win the day, we get the medal, the audience goes wild, everything works out perfectly! Sermon’s over.
Wouldn’t it be great if that were true?
But, no, life doesn’t seem to work out that way. On the super salmon ladder, our strength gives out, or we go and slip down a level, or somebody knocks us off, inevitably we fall in the water below.
Paul himself (in v. 5:3) points out we will still have sufferings. For Paul, suffering is like athletic endurance training. He says, “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Paul is pretty clear that in real life, no matter the strength of our faith, bad things happen to us. That probably why Paul preached a faith in “Christ crucified”. The crucifixion of Christ is central to Paul’s theology, more than any of the gospels, in fact.
From my point of view, this is why the cross is central for us: if Jesus is our “Immanuel” or God-with-us and Jesus was crucified, then he didn’t escape the “bad things” of life.
Jesus is with us even in the worst of the worst.
Actually, Jesus’ is with us on both sides of the struggle. He suffers and dies with us - AND (according to Luke) he asks for God to forgive his captors and executioners.
The very centerpiece of our religion is that God, through Jesus on the cross, is with us in our sufferings and forgives the very worst parts of us; forgive the vile, executioner parts of us that would gamble at the foot of the cross while Jesus breathes his last.
The theological jargon for that kind of forgiveness is “grace”. Grace. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ.
Paul reminds us that knowing we are saved by grace gives us peace, even in suffering.
On our American Ninja Warrior Super Salmon ladder, the people struggle to climb really high in the air. It’s rough going sometimes, and they fall. They wear the vest that is hooked to a rope that catches them so they can only fall so far.
Surprisingly, it’s the safety harness that makes the whole climb possible. The athletes only attempt to push themselves past their limits and climb so high because they know they will be safe when they fall.
God’s grace is like the safety harness that catches us all when we fall. Grace gives us hope to endure. Paul says, “hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
When we encounter difficulties in life, remember that grace surrounds all. It’s not something we create ourselves. Grace is there, waiting for us. We just need to have the faith to grab on, start climbing, and know that whether we win or lose, God loves us all.