Show Me the Math

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

Read the Sermon

Print This Post Print This Post


The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2023

But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  (Romans 5:8) 

When I was a student, math was never my favorite subject.  It’s not that I couldn’t do it.  Rather, math has never been the language I naturally use to make sense of reality.  Consequently I seldom applied myself and I did not do well.  I remember one notable exception, however, that occurred in my junior year of high school.  A major test was looming in my Algebra II class.  Part of the test would require us to calculate logarithms.  On the eve of the exam I didn’t know the difference between a logarithm and a logjam in a river.  Without drastic intervention I was sure to fail.  So that night I took my math book home (there’s a novel idea!).  I opened it to the chapter on logarithms, and went over it again and again and again until I understood.  The logjam had cleared.  The next day I pulled down a solid C on the test!  That was 44 years ago and I still count it a victory, even though the logarithmic logjam quickly reformed in my brain, and it remains there still.

One of life’s little ironies is that I went on to marry a woman who has been a math teacher.  Listen to the adjectives that my lovely wife uses to describe math: fun, exciting, stimulating.  Stacie explains that things would be different for me if I were a math student today.  Take, for example, the basic mathematical concepts of square roots, cube roots, and radicals.  To work these problems, what today’s students invariably do is use their TI-84 calculators, or even an app on their phones.  They arrive at the right answer every time.  Yet the case can be made that their understanding is lacking.  Years ago, Stacie had a smart-aleck student in a college course who instead of learning the quadratic formula himself, and the theory behind it, merely programmed it into his calculator.  He plugged in the numbers and got the right answer, yet he had no understanding of why. 

It’s even more basic than logarithms, square roots, and the quadratic formula.  An alarming number of students, having relied on calculators all their lives to do their math, stumble when it comes to multiplying and dividing in their heads.  The point I’m trying to illustrate here is people who have the right answers, yet really don’t understand the problems.  Keep that in mind as we turn now to today’s lesson from the Book of Romans (5:1-8).

In his letter to the Roman congregation, St. Paul explains that we have a problem – a problem that needs to be solved.  The problem is this: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  We have all erred and strayed hopelessly far from God’s intention for us.  God created us for friendship and fellowship with himself, but we seem to have lost the formula for realizing our God-given identity.  We haven’t a clue how to calculate the intimate fellowship with God we yearn to enjoy.  Listen to the adjectives that Paul uses to describe us in the eyes of God: weak, ungodly, sinners.  I must confess that I stumble over the harshness of the words.  True, I am often infinitely more wrapped up in myself than I am in God.  But does being so make me a weak, ungodly sinner?  Paul seems to think we have the capacity to be all that and more. 

What is the human capacity for sin?  Of course, it is enormous.  We think immediately of history’s notorious figures who have committed atrocities beyond comprehension.  Or you may imagine the average person on the street who is simply up to no good, and won’t or can’t resist whatever crime of opportunity presents itself.  But what of those who are supposed to know and do better?  Behold, a story for Father’s Day, and not a good one.  I’ve shared before how I find it interesting to read obituaries in The New York Times, the big write-ups that tell the life stories and defining moments of public figures. 

Take, for example, the comedian Pat Cooper, whose obituary ran on June 8th.  Cooper made a career out of poking fun at his Italian heritage and the quirks of his family.  The problem was, his family didn’t like it, and Cooper became estranged from all of them.  His only son, Michael, claimed that his famous father, who trafficked in family life, had nothing to with family life, and was absent from his childhood.  They never saw him.  At one point, the TV host, Geraldo Rivera, was airing a show about fatherhood, and Michael, by then a young adult, was a guest on the panel.  Pat Cooper himself phoned in with a live, angry rebuttal for a national audience to hear.  “Let me tell you something,” he shouted at Michael.  “I don’t have to be your father.  You’re not that thrilling, and I don’t want to be your father.”  Imagine: your defining moment – the thing that the world remembers about you, what gets written up in your obituary – is when you publicly disowned a son who wanted nothing more than to have a relationship with you.  Sadly, for Pat Cooper’s children, reconciliation with their father was an unsolvable problem. 

Some people conclude that reconciliation between sinful humanity and God is an unsolvable problem.  Nevertheless, writes St. Paul to the Romans.  Nevertheless, what we cannot do for ourselves, God has done for us.  God has done the work, and solved the problem, and given us the answer.  Because of what God has done, we are no longer estranged.  We now have access to God’s grace, and the broken fellowship is restored.  God has re-figured the reality of our relationship with himself.  What is it that God has done to bring this about?  It is the death of Jesus.  Paul says that the death of Jesus on the cross has justified us in God’s eyes.  While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For us.  At one time in history – at “the right time” – Christ died for us.  Christ’s death has changed our relationship with God.  It has brought about atonement.  It has brought about “at-one-ment” between us and God. 

How do you figure it?  How is it, you ask, that the death of Jesus restores us to fellowship with God?  What is it about this death that has brought about atonement?  What is the rationale of it.  How does the equation work?  Show me the math.  Do you know what?  We have no consistent math to show.  In the two-thousand years since the death and resurrection of Jesus, the church has never been able to embrace one theory of the atonement over any other, saying “this one is right and that one is wrong.”  We have theories from Patristic times, theories from the middle ages, theories from the Reformation and modern periods.  We have classic theories, substitution theories, demonstration theories, moral theories, ransom theories.  We have lots and lots of theories.  But we have no consensus.  Thus, that which is central to our faith is undefined.  On the one hand, we affirm that the death of Jesus has restored us to fellowship with God.  On the other hand, we are honest enough to admit we really don’t know how.  In this respect we are something like today’s math students who have all the right answers, yet really don’t understand how the equation works. 

Here we are in mid-June, when many students are enjoying their first weekend of the summer.  School is out!  I’ve always loved this time of year, but I remember a few times when I was doing so poorly in math that my parents signed me up for summer school.  It was an affront to childhood – a crime against the natural order.  Likewise, St. Paul was not content to let the Roman Christians, or us, out of school for the summer.  In today’s reading from Romans, Paul goes to the front of the classroom, to work the board and give us two formulas to help us understand how the death of Christ reconciles us with God.  Both formulas illumine a portion of the truth, but neither gives us the whole picture.  Both theories depend on the Incarnation – on Christmas – that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. 

The first is a large, global, universal idea.  Paul writes that God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  The death of Jesus is God’s demonstration of how much God loves us, of how far God will go to reach us.  The death of Jesus is right in line with all the other acts of God that reveal his goodness and love.  This we affirm in one of our Eucharistic Prayers, when we pray: “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.”  The whole sweep of it is good news.  It says to us that no matter how badly we foul things up – no matter completely we might reject God – God’s will to reach us is greater than our ability to resist.  Our closing hymn today (#539) expresses the idea when we sing that he who made all nations is not willing one soul should fail to know his love and might.  God demonstrated his love, proved his love for us supremely on the cross.  Remember, God was in Christ. 

The second idea fits within the big idea, and flows from it.  Paul draws on the metaphor of sacrifice.  He says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Paul wrote in the Greek language, and the word translated into the English “for,” could just as well be translated, “on behalf of,” or even “instead of.”  Christ died “instead of” us.  Jesus takes our place to balance the equation.  Upon hearing these key words of the sacrificial system, the Jews of Paul’s day would immediately call to mind their own Day of Atonement.  On that day, the High Priest would pray over a perfect, unblemished lamb, and symbolically transfer the sins of the people onto it.  The people would then chase the lamb into the wilderness, thus removing their sin from them.  The lamb would surely die.  But the lamb would die instead of the people.  It took their place.  It bore their sin.  Jesus is like the lamb.  O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us … grant us thy peace. 

 Can someone else take your place?  History is replete with examples of people laying down their lives so that others might live.  “Greater love has no one than this,” said Jesus (John 15:13).  So yes, someone can take your place.  One way that the church has always articulated the good news is that Jesus took your place and mine.  On the cross, God in Christ absorbed the consequences of our sin, and thus we have peace with God.  Some liturgical language that may sound familiar expresses the idea: Jesus made there, on the cross, “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction , for the sins of the whole world.”  And, “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to (God’s) will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  Jesus took your place and mine.  Remember, God was in Christ. 

So there you have two examples of St. Paul, working the board at the front of the classroom, trying to help us calculate the atonement.  He wants us to have an understanding of the church’s central affirmation: Christ died for us.  Note well how I did not say Paul wants us to have the one and only understanding.  No such thing exists.  The Bible itself gives us many different ways to understand the atonement, and the church will be forever working out the math.  The board has plenty of room on it for your figuring, if you must.  Working the problem ourselves and in community is the way we come to understand.  But know this: what God ultimately desires from us is not a head full of theories or a board full of formulas, but a life of loving service and gratitude. 

Understanding is not a prerequisite for participation.  So if you still can’t show the math of how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God, relax.  A nursing infant receives nourishment from its mother’s milk without the slightest clue as to what is happening.  I send dozens of emails everyday, knowing vaguely that the process has something to do with electricity.  Perhaps logarithms might explain it.  Perhaps not.  Don’t ask me to show you any math. 

I may never fully understand all the benefits of Christ’s passion, but I am free to participate in them, and I will always give thanks that while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.