I'm home on this Ash Wednesday evening, working on writing a lesson plan for Romans 5:1-11. This is part of the freelance curriculum writing job I've had since late fall, a job for which I continue to be so thankful, in part because it's such a joy to be able to spend time in the Scriptures, thinking and writing about them for youth and their teachers.
This is my fifth project for the publisher, and only my second New Testament lesson. It's also the first time I've had to tackle Paul for this curriculum. I use the word "tackle" on purpose, because as usual, I find Paul a challenge for my mind and heart.
In general, my story-loving self finds it ever so much easier to write lesson plans and activity guides for narrative or poetic/prophetic passages. Narratives give us characters we can hang our hats on, and poetry gives us concrete visual images. To be fair, Paul sometimes gives us both of those things -- he loves to re-tell Old Testament stories (often with a new twist) and he sometimes provides rich imagery ("clanging cymbal" and the parts of the body talking to one another come to mind right away). But sometimes he's the Paul I tend to think of when his name comes to mind: the pastoral, teaching Paul whose complex sentences can pack what feels like dozens of deeply rich theological words into a very, very small space.
These eleven verses I've been sitting with for the past couple of weeks contain a lot of the biggies: reconciliation, justification, grace, hope, peace, faith, endurance, suffering, rejoicing, wrath. They're all there, and the first few times I read through the passage, as I thought about trying to help teachers unpack it for youth, I found myself wanting to bite my nails. It was hard to pick one over-arching "big idea" because, quite frankly, every single idea in it is big.
So I just kept reading. I'd pick it up at odd moments and read it again. I read it in the ESV (my study Bible of choice these days), in the NIV along with some commentary notes, in the NRSV (which is the translation I need to use for my work). I read it in the Message (thank you, Eugene) and in the wonderfully expanded Amplified version, which interestingly enough, really helped me this time, because with its parenthetical comments expanding on some of those big theological words, it somehow captured the exuberance of Paul.
I think that's what I was missing for a while, as I read the passage with my mind (not a bad thing to do, of course, and needed) trying to understand the import of what Paul was saying well enough to begin to put it into simpler and more concrete terms for kids. I needed to read it with my heart too, to hear the excitement in Paul's voice as he builds and builds and repeats himself...and he does...about the amazing love of God. A love poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. A love shown to us through the death of Jesus on the cross, a death he died while we were yet sinners. While we were a helpless mess and could do nothing on our behalf, reminds Paul, God did it all.
And we who have been reconciled through that act have hope. Real, living, true, confident hope that will never disappoint us, no matter what kind of suffering may come our way. Hope that allows us to rejoice no matter what comes, because HE HAS DONE IT. When we turn to him in trust, when we put our hope in this great good news, he makes us new and sets us right, forever healing our relationship to God which was once so irrevocably broken.
All the big words Paul uses? He's not using them to impress or confuse, he's using them because they're the only ones he can come up with that are rich and deep and brilliant enough to capture at least a little bit of the truth he's trying to sing for us here, preaching it so it can sink deep down into our bones and enflame our hearts and remind us anew of who God is and what he has done.
I am so thankful for the apostle Paul, so thankful for these words and the gift of the Scriptures.