Monday, September 25, 2023

United in the Truth

While I have no idea how long I am going to be able to keep it up for, I have again managed a written version of the sermon for this week!  This week, the written version is much longer than the sermon and has significantly more material in it.  It is for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.  The link below is to the recording of the sermon itself.

United in the Truth

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 15:1-13

Last week, we looked at how St Paul deals with an issue that was preventing different groups of believers in the church in Rome from getting together with one another. This was not just an issue in Rome but was an issue more generally in the early church. The historical and cultural context of the issue was the different backgrounds of the believers in the early church.

Those Jews who had become believers had previously had a lifestyle based on God's Law. This Law regulated all of life, including what a person could and could not eat. Those who were from a pagan background had had no such limitations on their diet.

A major question, then, was how much believers who had previously been pagan in their lifestyle should adopt God’s Law once they had become believers and what the status of the Law itself was now that the Messiah had come.

St Paul's spends quite some time in the letter to the Roman believers explaining his own position. He states quite clearly that all believers, both Jew and Gentile, have died to the Law and that they no longer serve God according to the ‘written code’ (Romans 7:6).

St Paul would be expected, therefore, to think that the food laws no longer applied to the believer and that all food could be eaten. He did think that, but, in a surprising turn in Romans 14 and 15, St Paul also argues that if someone believed they should go on keeping the food laws, as some did at Rome, then they could do so, as long as they did not judge those who did not keep them. St Paul states the principle that whatever a believer does is to be done to honour the Lord, and if someone eats in such a way that is honouring to God, then they should be left alone to get on with it (Romans 14:5-9).

Furthermore, St Paul also argues that those who don't keep the food laws, those he calls the ‘strong’, should voluntarily give up their right to eat anything they like and not eat meat, if by their not keeping the food laws and eating meat, they cause harm or grief to those who do (Romans 14:21).

St Paul believes that the question is not what people may or may not eat, but whether they accept one another or not. He urges them to accept one another, so that together with one voice they may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6-7).

Many people today have a very distorted view of the Apostle Paul. He is often seen as having been very dogmatic and inflexible. St Paul certainly was firm in what he believed, and he could be uncompromising when he needed to be, but one of the most fundamental things he believed in was the unity of believers in Christ and the need to preserve that unity as much as possible. He lived by that truth, and he possibly died for it.

St Paul tells us in chapter 15 that at the time of writing the letter to the Roman believers, he was preparing to go to Spain to preach the Gospel and that he intended to visit the Roman believers on the way. St Paul informs us, however, that, before this, he intends to visit Jerusalem to deliver the money he has collected for the church there (Romans 15:22-29.

St Paul tells the Roman believers to accept one another. He is not sure, however, that when he gets to Jerusalem whether he himself will be accepted by the believers in the church at Jerusalem (Romans 15:31). St Paul was right to be worried. When he gets to Jerusalem, St James, who is the leading figure in the church there, together with the other leaders of the church, tell St Paul they are pleased with all that he has achieved in his mission to the Gentiles so far. They are, however, far more concerned by what people are saying about St Paul and his attitude to God's Law and the effect it may have on their own mission to the Jews. They are worried what the consequences of a person with St Paul’s reputation coming to Jerusalem may have for them in Jerusalem and beyond. They say to St Paul:

‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.’ (Acts 21:20-24)

In what must be one of the worst pieces of advice in church history, the leaders in Jerusalem suggest that St Paul goes to the Temple to take part in a Jewish ritual to show his respect for the Law and to demonstrate that what the Jewish believers have heard about him is not true.

St Paul acts in the way he told the Roman believers to act. While he doesn't see any obligation for him to continue to follow Jewish customs and practices, he is willing to do so out of love for his fellow believers in Jerusalem. Through no fault of his own, it all goes disastrously wrong, and St Paul loses his freedom, having almost lost his life in the process.

People are aware that St Paul spent a long time in prison and even that he wrote some of his letters while in captivity. If, though, you ask people why St Paul was imprisoned, the answer you will often get is ‘for preaching the Gospel’. This, however, is not the case. As we have just read, St James and the other leaders of the church had been preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem without any of them being arrested. St James says there were thousands of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and the authorities at the time seemed happy to leave them alone.

The reason, in fact, that St Paul was arrested and imprisoned was not for preaching the Gospel as such, but for attempting to reach out in love to the ‘weak’ in Jerusalem in the way he had told the ‘strong’ in Rome to do. His actions, however, were misunderstood by the Jews leading to the Roman authorities imprisoning him to prevent the Jews from killing him. It appears from what St Luke writes that the leaders of the church and the believers in Jerusalem did little to help him. It is noticeable that there is no mention of the Jerusalem church and its leaders again in the book of Acts after this incident.

St Paul accepted the believers in Jerusalem and reached out to them in love. It is not at all clear, however, that they accepted him. Acting out of love can be costly. It cost St Paul his freedom and nearly cost him his life. It may, in fact, actually have done so. We know that after being taken prisoner in Jerusalem, St Paul spent two years in prison in Caesarea and then a further two years as a prisoner in Rome. We do not know whether after the two years as a prisoner in Rome, he was released or executed.

I said last week that there were three fundamental principles that emerge from what St Paul writes to the Roman believers about accepting one another.

  • that God will grant us the wisdom to know when we need to argue for the truth and the courage to do so
  • that whatever we do will be honouring to the Lord
  • and that in all things we will put the love of others before the love of ourselves

In the letter to the Roman believers, St Paul faces up to the question of the Law and a believer’s relationship to it. St Paul is clear in what he writes to the Roman believers that keeping the Law is not the basis for our acceptance by God; it is no longer the way we serve God; and it is not the means by which God will save us in the future. In Galatians, St Paul is prepared to cause whatever division is necessary to guard what he regards as fundamental truths of the Gospel. As long as these truths were accepted and understood, however, St Paul could live with people voluntarily choosing to keep parts of the Law, as long as they didn't judge those who did not.

Of course, those who kept the Law in St Paul’s day would have struggled with the idea that keeping God's Law could be something that was optional. But St Paul believed that, although he himself did not see the need to continue to keep parts of God’s Law, respecting those who did was, at least, a way that both types of believers, strong and weak, Jew and Gentile, could come together with one voice to glorify God.

This issue was eventually settled not by discussion and debate, but by the events of history. Firstly, by the Jewish War of AD 66-70 and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman army. This ended the leading role of the church in Jerusalem and diminished the influence of Jewish believers in the church more widely. Secondly, and linked to this, issues surrounding the Law became far less of an issue as the Church became predominantly Gentile.

If historically, however, the Church had learnt from this dispute and had adopted the principles that St Paul taught, it would have avoided at least some of the divisions that were later to hinder its mission and to cause it so much damage. Damage, sadly, that is still with us today.

So,what about today?

It is important to see that St Paul can be flexible in his approach to the weak because he knew what he believed and what was essential to the Gospel he preached. It wasn't a case with St Paul of anything goes or that unity comes before everything else. Indeed, St Paul spends the first 11 chapters of Romans establishing how he understands the Gospel and what it means for those who come to know God through it. It is only after having done so that he turns to how what he has said is to be lived out in love.

St Paul believed that it was false teaching about the Law that threatened the truth of the Gospel in the churches he had established. He writes in very strong terms against those spreading this false teaching and warning of its dangers (Philippians 3:2-3). This was by no means the only issue to threaten the church in its early years. In St John’s churches, for example, the truth of the Gospel was threatened by false teaching about the person of Christ, and St John responds to it in the same way and with the same determination that St Paul had responded to the false teaching in Galatia, refuting the teaching itself and urging the church to have nothing to do with the false teachers (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 10).

We can then see a four-step approach in what St Paul writes:

  • recognizing when thinking and teaching is false and presents a challenge to a fundamental truth of the Gospel
  • refuting the false thinking and teaching by a clear explanation of the Gospel truth showing where the false thinking and teaching is wrong
  • warning against the false thinking and teaching and those who are spreading it, urging believers to avoid them where necessary
  • applying the truth that is being challenged in a way that maintains unity and accepts legitimate differences of opinion

St Paul closes his letter to the Roman believers with a passage that often gets overlooked. St Paul warns them:

‘Now I urge you, brothers, to keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and stumblings contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.’ (Romans 16:17)

The Biblical writers are all clear about the need both to recognize and resist false teaching; what in former times was called heresy. But a word of warning! False teaching is not just teaching with which we disagree but teaching that poses a real challenge and threat to the truth of the Gospel. St Paul thought that those who taught that a believer should only eat vegetables were wrong, but he didn't accuse them of false teaching. The church has too often in the past divided over issues that at the time were believed to be about fundamental truths but which, with the benefit of hindsight, can be seen to be what St Paul describes as differences of opinion.

So, with that caution in mind, are there any issues today that we should beware of as a threat to the fundamental truths of the Gospel? I think there are three. There is, however, only the time for me to give one, and then only briefly! I realize, of course, that what I am about to say needs exploring in far greater detail than is possible now.

One of the most serious challenges we face today, I would suggest, is over the issue of human identity. The Bible begins with a very clear assertion about the nature of human beings. The Bible teaches that human beings are created by God in the image of God:

‘So God created humans in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)

Not only the man in the image of God, nor only the woman, nor even simply the man and the woman individually, but both together, so that the image of God is to be found in a proper relationship and mutual interdependence between man and woman. This means a recognition of the equality of men and women, but also a recognition of the difference. It is an equality and difference that is not abolished in Christ but affirmed.

This enables us, I think, to recognize the error of those who, for example, are at present teaching both transhumanism and transgenderism. Human identity, we need to teach is not to be found in an assertion of human autonomy and freedom but in an acceptance of God's plan for his creation, a plan which involves maintaining that God created us as man and woman in the image of God.

This will be interpreted differently by different people in the Church when applied to the roles of men and women in the Church and society. For some, for example, male and female roles will look very traditional. For others, there will be a desire to explore new ways of expressing what it means to be a man or a woman in Christ.

It is here in the area of interpretation and application that there is a need for love and acceptance. What, I would suggest, there is no room for is the idea that we are free from all constraints to choose whom we want to be. The Bible neither recognizes nor gives such freedom. We are not free to choose whoever we want to be but rather in Christ we are given the freedom to become who God wants us to be.

True freedom is only to be found in becoming who God calls us to be in Christ, and then serving Him as children of God. We can only discover who God wants us to be when we discover God himself for ourself. In this, and indeed in every issue, as the Psalmist says, it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom (Psalmist 111:10).

In conclusion, firstly, we need to know our faith. If we are going to argue and make a stand for the Gospel, we need to know what the Gospel is. I think it is true to say that many sincere believers do not know their faith very well. St Paul begins his letter to the Roamn believers by writing:

‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Romans 1:16)

We need to know the Gospel both because our own salvation depends on it and also because this is what we are called to preach and this is what other people's salvation depends on. One of the reasons St Paul writes Romans is to explain the Gospel he preaches as the Apostle to the Gentiles and to show what difference it ought to make in the lives of those who believe it. The result of St Paul’s efforts is the longest letter we have of his.

Too often we do not think it matters what we believe. People who stand for what they believe and who insist on the truth of the Gospel are often, as St. Paul was, labelled dogmatic and bigoted. But if a doctor prescribes medicine for a patient and insists that the patient takes it, the doctor is not described as dogmatic and bigoted for not being flexible about whether or not the patient should take the prescribed dose. It's just being sensible.

The Gospel is the power of God to salvation, and we need to insist on it, and insist that people believe in it if they want to be saved. We need to know our faith!

But secondly, we need to accept one another. The truth of the Gospel is to be the basis of our acceptance of one another. It is the basis of our own acceptance by God, and we should accept all who are accepted by God and who accept the truth of the Gospel. Which means we need to put aside our own prejudices, our own preferences, and prioritize coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Standing for the truth of the Gospel is not the same as standing for our own opinions, and too often in the past the Church has divided over people's opinions rather than over the truth. I will resist the temptation to give examples.

So, as Paul closes his letter to the Roman believers and as we end on our journey through it, let us pray that God will grant us to know the power of the Gospel unto salvation and have the courage to preach it and to stand for it. Let us also commit, like St Paul, to prioritizing unity amongst ourselves. Because we will only be able to preach the Gospel, we will only be effective in preaching the Gospel, if we are united in Christ.

St Paul prays for the Roman believers that with one voice they may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we too with one voice glorify him.


Monday, September 18, 2023

With One Voice

I have managed a written version of the sermon again this week! It is for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.  This is it with the link below to a recording of the sermon itself.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 14:1-12

After all that we have been reading so far in St Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, chapter 14 comes as a bit of a shock.

In chapters 1 to 11, St Paul has been discussing God's plan of salvation. In chapters 12 and 13, he writes about how we should respond to all that God has done for us in Christ and how it should affect our relationships in the world, both with each other and with those in authority. Then, after having warned the Roman believers that the Day of the Lord is at hand at the end of chapter 13, he follows it in chapters 14 and 15 with what seems a relatively trivial subject in comparison: discussing the believer’s diet and whether we can have meat with our vegetables or whether we should stick to just vegetables!

After all that has gone before, it seems a pretty big come down and something of an anti-climax. It would not perhaps be quite so bad if St Paul only spent a few verses on it. In fact, St Paul devotes 30 verses in our Bibles to the subject. This is nearly double what he spends on the Holy Spirit in chapter 8. So why is this issue so important to him?

To understand why it is, we are going to need to understand something of the cultural and historical context.

Firstly, by the time St Paul wrote the letter to the Roman believers, the Church was made up of both Jews and gentiles. In Rome, gentiles were, in fact, in the majority. Coming from such different backgrounds, how Jews and gentiles related to each other and got on with each other on a practical day to day basis was a major issue.

The Jews, after all, were already worshipping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and had been doing so, albeit imperfectly, for many centuries. They had been expecting the Messiah, and they were familiar with the Scriptures. The gentiles, however, came from a pagan background. Some had some knowledge of God through their attendance as guests at synagogues, but many did not, and all would have been involved in idolatry in some form or another. The pagan gods were everywhere in the first century.

Secondly, those from a Jewish background had a lifestyle grounded in God’s Law. The Law made one day special and gave specific instructions on what could and could not be eaten. Sabbath observance and keeping kosher were not optional extras for the Jews. This is something we don't quite understand today, but for Jews it was central to their identity. Indeed, many Jews in the past had chosen to die rather than work on the Sabbath or eat pork, which was forbidden in God’s Law. Furthermore, much of the meat available in the meat markets of the ancient world had previously been offered in pagan sacrifices or had not been slaughtered in the way that the Law required.

So, for many Jews, it was easier simply not to eat meat and to stick to vegetables. In that way, they could be sure of keeping the Law’s requirements.

Thirdly, worship in the early church centred around a meal, not just a symbolic meal, which is what we have nowadays on a Sunday, but a proper meal (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). When Jews became followers of Christ and found themselves mixing with an increasing number of gentiles within the Church, how that meal was prepared and what was in it was for many both a religious and social issue.

How much of an issue it was can be seen in St Paul's letter to the Galatians in which St Paul describes how he and St Peter had a very public argument over it. St Peter, we learn, had routinely eaten with gentile believers in Antioch, but when Jewish believers arrived from Jerusalem, St Peter withdrew from eating with the gentiles in order not to upset the Jewish believers by eating in a way that the Jewish believers would have found contrary to the Law. St Paul was horrified at this and said so, rebuking St Peter publicly (Galatians 2:11-14).

The Roman Church itself seems to have consisted of several small groups of believers. These were predominantly gentile in composition, but by no means exclusively so. It seems that some were made up of Jewish believers and those who sympathized with them. These Jewish groups, in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Law, kept the food laws and ate only vegetables. Many of the groups, however, ate what they liked.

This made fellowship between the groups difficult, which was bad enough, but worse still, those who did not eat meat passed judgement on those who did, and those who ate everything despised those who only ate vegetables.

It is, then, to these different groups and their members that St Paul addresses his comments. It should be said that while this was an issue in Rome, it wasn’t only an issue peculiar to the Church at Rome. We know that it was a problem more generally in the Church. We argue today over sexual issues; they argued over food. Food and sex are always issues that get people worked up!

St Paul is certain that what a believer eats no longer matters and that the food laws in the Law no longer apply. St Paul himself calls those who take this view the ‘strong in faith’. He is also very clear that those who think that the food laws do still apply are ‘weak in faith’.

There were thus two types of believers in the Roman Church: those St Paul calls the ‘weak’ and those he calls the ‘strong’. What we have to remember, however, is that those St Paul thought weak in faith certainly did not think of themselves in this way. As far as they were concerned, they were obediently keeping God's Law, which was why they were so judgemental of those who did not. For their part, those who ate all things believed that those who ate only vegetables were limited in their understanding, which was why they despised them.

The reason that this was such an issue was that their differences were preventing the different groups from coming together to worship God and to have fellowship with each other. Given the problems and challenges the Church was facing from outside, it certainly didn't need to add internal division to them.

The way St Paul tackles this problem is very interesting. We may have expected him to do so by discussing the issue itself and attempting to explain to those who did not eat meat why it was okay for them to do so. In other words, that St Paul would to try to sort out the division by getting the believers in the church to agree on one single position, but he doesn't.

St Paul does not see the question that needs to be answered as being whether they eat meat or not, but whether they accept one another or not, and acceptance of one another means accepting differences of opinion. Consequently, St Paul starts chapter 14 by urging the strong to accept the weak. St Paul writes:

‘Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on opinions.’ (Romans 14:1)

Now St Paul can take the position he does because he thinks the food laws are a matter of indifference. However, while he is convinced that the food laws no longer apply, he accepts that for some they can be a way of demonstrating their desire to honour God. I am not sure how convinced the weak who kept the food laws would be by what St Paul writes. They ate only vegetables because they thought that this was what the Law demanded. For them, this was not a question of human opinion or something that they had any choice in but about obeying God’s Law. I am sure that St Paul would have realized this, which suggests that what St Paul writes is designed principally as an appeal to the strong. He does seem predominantly to be addressing the strong. Hence, St Paul can write ‘we who are strong’ (Romans 15:1), as if the strong are his principal audience.

St Paul tells them that rather than claiming their right to eat meat or protesting their freedom, the so-called strong are, firstly, not to despise those who eat only vegetables, and, secondly, they are to be willing to give up their right to eat meat in order not to upset their brother or sister in Christ.

All this seems a bit removed from us today. People are vegetarians, of course, but it has nothing to do with keeping the Old Testament food laws! St Paul, however, in the process of discussing this issue gives us some principles, which are very relevant to us and to every age.

Firstly, we need to choose our arguments.

St Paul was not averse to telling people when he thought they had got it wrong. I have already referred to his argument with St Peter at Antioch. The letter to the Galatians itself is strong stuff in which St Paul severely reprimands the Galatians for what he sees as their abandonment of the Gospel. This is the key to understanding St Paul’s approach. It is why he begins chapter 14 by writing that they are to accept the one who is weak in faith but not to pass judgement over ‘opinions’.

St Paul is clear in his own mind that those who ate only vegetables were weak in faith and have not understood the implications of having died to the Law. Equally, he doesn't see any threat to the truth of the Gospel in those who only ate vegetables continuing not to eat meat as long as they, in turn, don't judge those who do. What St Paul thinks is all important is whether someone seeks to live for God and honour him by what they do. If a believer is able to offer what they do to God with thanks, then St Paul thinks they should be left alone to get on with it. Each person has to decide for themselves how they live. St Paul writes that each one should be fully convinced in their own mind (Romans 14:5).

Secondly, we are accountable first and foremost to God.

Now this sounds all very liberal and individual. We each do what we feel is right for us. Except, for St Paul, it is not quite like that. We have to be able to offer what we do as individuals to the Lord with thanks for it. The one who eats should be honoring the Lord by eating and the one who does not eat should be honoring the Lord by not eating. St Paul has already made it clear that there are some behaviours that are never honoring to the Lord and which we cannot thank him for. Drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, and jealousy, for example. Other behaviour, while not necessarily being a logical outcome of the Gospel, is in itself morally neutral, but it can become something good if offered with thanks to God. The person to decide whether a particular behavior is good or not is ultimately, of course, God himself. And decide he will. As St Paul writes:

‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each one of us will be held accountable to God.’ (Romans 14:10-12)

If we think that God will not be pleased if we do something or if we are not sure whether we should, then we should not do it ‘for whatever is not of faith is sin’ (Romans 14:23).

Thirdly, just because we can do something, does not mean we must.

Something can be good in itself or even morally neutral and done by us to honour God, and yet there may still be a reason for not doing it. That reason is out of consideration for a brother or sister in the body of Christ. St Paul makes this plain in chapter 15. St Paul writes:

‘Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.’ (Romans 15:1)

Even when a brother or sister has failed to understand fully what the Gospel allows us to do, not only do we ourselves not have to do it, there are times when we definitely should not do it. We are to go out of our way not to harm or cause distress to a brother or sister. If we cause our brother or sister grief, we are no longer walking in love (Romans 15:14).

This does not mean that we have to listen to unreasonable or irrational demands from people, but it does mean that getting our own way is not what we should be most concerned about. What we should be concerned about is being able to join together with each other in loving acceptance of each other, so that with one voice we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6).

We need, then, to pray:
  • that God will grant us the wisdom to know when we need to argue for the truth and the courage to do so
  • that whatever we do will be honouring to the Lord
  • and that in all things we will put the love of others before the love of ourselves
St Paul gives us the governing principle. St Paul writes:

‘For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.’ (Romans 14:7-8).

Our Lord himself tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our being and our neighbours as ourselves. It is not necessarily easy, but nor was it easy for Christ, writes St Paul, to take on the reproaches of us all (Romans 15:3). We are now called to honour him, so that we may indeed with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

May God grant it to be so.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Time to Wake Up

The great enemy when it comes to writing sermons is time, or rather the lack of it, especially when you are preaching every week, as I am at the moment. 

Ideally, time would be spent on reading and preparation, then on producing a written version, followed by some thought being given to delivery and the production of the notes needed for the sermon itself. Then, in an ideal world, the sermon would be recorded and posted online together with a transcription of the sermon as preached as well as the written version for those who wanted to take time over it. 

Most weeks, however, it is only possible to complete part of this process or to complete it inadequately. The written version is normally something that doesn't get finished!

This week for the sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, however, I have managed to complete a written version.  So, instead of the transcription, here is the longer written version. The actual preached sermon can be heard at the link below!

Time to Wake Up

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 13:8-14

Last week, we saw how St Paul teaches the need for us to love and for that love to be real. He tells those he writes to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

What follows immediately after this in Romans 13, then, is something of a surprise. St Paul writes about the need for believers to obey those in authority and to make sure they pay their taxes. He is quite strong in how he puts this. St Paul writes:

‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.’ (Romans 13:1-2)

St Paul goes on to describe those in authority as God’s servants and ministers (Romans 13:4, 6). This is why those he is writing to pay taxes, he tells them.

This is a passage that continues to trouble Christians today. What about when the authorities are not only people we disagree with but are also truly bad people. Surely St. Paul doesn't see them as instituted by God, and surely he doesn't expect us to obey them whatever they tell us to do?

The first thing to be said about this passage is that St Paul was only too well aware that the authorities could be really bad people. After all, he had been on the receiving end of the cruelty of those in power more than once. What is more, he had held them to account when he felt they were in the wrong (see Acts 16:35-40).

This passage in Romans, though, is not our reading today, and as much as I would like to say more about it, I must resist the temptation. What I would say, however, is that the principles that St Paul enunciated in our reading last week apply here as well.

Firstly, we are not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good, and this applies to our relationship with those in authority as well as to anyone else. Secondly, St Paul hasn’t stopped discussing how our love is to be real at the end of chapter 12. He continues his discussion on how our love is to be real on into chapter 13 and into this passage about the governing authorities. The need for us to love applies to the many issues we face in the world that St Paul has said we must not be conformed to, and it applies in the world of politics and government as much as anywhere else.

It is only because we have such a romanticized and sexualized view of love that we don't see the connection with what Paul writes about love in our reading last week and what he writes here in Romans chapter 13 about the governing authorities.

That St Paul has not left off discussing the theme of love at the end of chapter 12 is to be seen in how he continues after this passage in chapter 13. After telling the believers of the Church in Rome to obey the government and pay their taxes, St Paul writes,

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’ (Romans 13:8)

St Paul tells them in the passage that follows, and which is our reading today, that all the commandments are summed up in the single command to love your neighbor as yourself.

St Paul was accused by some in the Church of teaching that believers didn't have to worry about how they lived and what they did (Romans 3:8). St Paul himself asks the question of whether God's grace, that is, his unconditional love for us, means we should continue in sin? He answers it with an emphatic, ‘No!’ (Romans 6:1,15). He realizes, however, that his teaching could seem to suggest otherwise. As, indeed, could his teaching about the God’s Law. He tells the Roman believers that we have died to God’s Law (Romans 7:1) and that we don't serve God any more according to the written code, but in the newness of the Spirit (Romans 7:6).

So, does this mean that there are no rules? There were those who thought it meant exactly that. The Corinthians, for example, had a slogan, ‘All things are lawful to me’, and they used it to justify all kinds of behaviour, even going to a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

St Paul definitely doesn’t think it means this. He firmly believes that there is behaviour that is absolutely incompatible with a believer’s life in Christ and that if a believer is led by the Spirit in the new life that Christ gives that there are things that they simply will not do. In Galatians, St Paul describes these things as the ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19).

Again, we saw last week that we live between two times, the time of Christ's death for our sins as our Saviour and his return as our Judge. How are we to live in this in-between time? Many then as now lived as if they were asleep, as if they didn’t have to worry too much about how they lived. St Paul calls his readers to wake from sleep. He tells them that the night is far gone and the day is at hand. He urges them to cast off the ‘works of darkness’ and put on the ‘armour of light’ to protect themselves from the darkness.

St Paul gives three examples of the works of darkness that believers are to cast off. The first two are typical behaviours of the night, ‘partying and drinking’ and ‘sexual promiscuity and licence’. The third is different to the other two, ‘quarrelling and jealousy’. The past lifestyle of some of the Gentile members of the Church may well have included partying and drinking and promiscuity and licence in it, as is the case today. Today, however, we may feel that these two types of behaviour are not typical of church members generally! That may be true. But quarreling and jealousy, sadly, have been major problems in the Church from the beginning. It serves as a reminder to us that we should not focus only on certain types of bad behaviour and ignore others.

St Paul closes, firstly, by telling them, using the metaphor of getting dressed, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and secondly, to make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires. They are to so copy Christ and how he lived that they look like Christ, and in living as Christ lived, they are not to satisfy their own desires. The life St Paul calls them to live is the precise opposite of one that makes self-fulfilment its goal.

How are we to apply all this today?

Firstly, it wasn't just in St Paul's own day that people thought that love meant the freedom to do whatever they felt was right. In the 1960s, there was a general rebellion against rules and authority. Many truly believed that ‘love is all you need’. Anything to do with law and commandments, rules and regulations, was to be done away with. We may not put it quite so crassly now, but the belief continues that as long as you do something ‘out of love’ that's what matters.

The question is, however, what is love? It means so many different things depending on who is using it. Ideally, we would find a different word than ‘love’ to use. It is clear that St Paul’s idea of what it is and what many today think it is are very different. Given how the word love is used and understood today, using the word love to describe what St Paul and the New Testament tell us to do simply confuses and even enables conduct contrary to love as the Bible understands it.

For St Paul, love isn't contrary to the Law, it's what the Law was all about and what the Law itself was pointing to. As St Paul has previously explained, the problem wasn’t with the Law but with our inability to keep it. Love represents a different way of achieving what the Law itself was seeking to achieve. If we love, we will do what the Law wanted us to do all along.

For many today, however, love rather than enabling us to fulfil the Law is about me finding fulfilment for myself and satisfying my own desires. If it feels right, do it! If challenged about whether what we are doing is right or not, often the response is to ask how something can be wrong when it feels so right?

As we have seen, St Paul closes chapter 13 by telling us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires. The fact that something feels right is no guarantee that it is right. Indeed, the very fact that something feels right ought in itself to serve as something of an alarm call to us. It should alert us that it may be our own selfish desire, what St Paul calls the desires of the flesh, that is telling us to do something, rather than something that the Holy Spirit is leading us to do.

St Paul writes that love does no wrong to a neighbour. If something we want to do is primarily about what is good for us rather than what is good for others, it is at the very least worth questioning and reconsidering.

Secondly, as well as an emphasis on ‘love not law’ there has been a general feeling that the Church has been too negative in the past. It was, many claim, too concerned with telling people what they should not do rather than being positive about what they should do. This sounds good in theory, but it has led to people not being sure that there is anything they shouldn’t do. What we should or should not do has now largely become a matter of individual choice with no-one’s choices being either wrong or better than anyone else’s.

St Paul is far more robust and realistic. He tells us we are to cast off the works of darkness. Having surrendered to the prevailing cultural climate, we in the Church have failed to tell people both what these works are and why they need to cast them off. The works of darkness are not only wrong in and of themselves, they hurt and damage both ourselves and others.

Let us take the works of darkness that St Paul gives in our reading this morning by way of example. Firstly, as we all know, alcohol is a real social problem. A lot of crime and violence is caused by drinking and drunkenness. As are broken families and domestic abuse. Secondly, sexual permissiveness has become the norm. But did you know that STIs are at an all-time high? How many people on any one day in the US have an STI? The answer is 1 in 5. That figure is from the Centers for Disease Control. Now you may say that’s the US. AIDS Concern, however, did a survey amongst young people in Hong Kong and discovered of those they surveyed that 17.5% of the girls had had an STI. We are very selective about the diseases we let affect our behaviour, don’t you think? Thirdly, I think we can all agree that envy and jealousy can lead people to do things that harm others, but they also harm the person who is envious and jealous. Envy and jealousy add to stress and anger, which are closely linked to several illnesses. Anger itself is a risk factor for heart disease and long-term stress harms the immune system and has been linked with several forms of cancer.

It may sound to our ears today that St Paul is being negative and opposed to anyone having a good time and enjoying themselves, the reality is that the desires of the flesh lead to destruction, disease, and death.

When St Paul tells us to put on the armour of light, he is not only telling us what we should do instead, he is telling us how we can protect ourselves from the darkness, that, after all, is what armour is for. But if you are going to put the armour on, you first need to take the clothing of darkness off, which is why St Paul closes our passage with the metaphor of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and making no provision for the flesh.

Our goal as believers is to become Christ-like. Sometimes when people like me talk about love it sounds all very abstract and unreal. For the believer, love is not an abstract concept. Love is a person. If we want to know what love looks like, we look at Jesus and if we want to see the right way to live, we look at Jesus. Our goal in life is to become like him. We are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.

May God grant that each of us puts on the Lord Jesus Christ and becomes more like him.


Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Real Love

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at the link below!

Real Love

Romans 12:9-21

St Paul begins chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans and a new section of the letter by appealing to his readers on the basis of the mercies of God. In the light of all that he has described about what God has done for us, St Paul now appeals to us on that basis. He tells us and tells his readers that we're not to be conformed to this world, but rather we are to be transformed. The way we are to be transformed is by the renewing of our minds. How we think matters. The first thing our renewed minds will think differently about, St Paul writes, is ourselves.

As we saw last week, St Paul tells us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3). St Paul will repeat this instruction in our reading this week. Well, if we are not to think of ourselves too highly, how are we to think of ourselves? St Paul writes that we are to think of ourselves according to the ‘measure of faith’ God has given us. We are each given gifts to enable us to play our part in the body of Christ. We are all different with different gifts, but we are all part of the same body, and we are to use our gifts to benefit that body.

Which brings us to this week's reading.

St Paul begins, ‘Let love be genuine’, that is, let love be real. Well, that's clear enough. Commentators, however, don't agree on the meaning of what follows. They are at something of a loss to explain the connection between the different parts of the passage that we have just read. Many see it as just a random collection of things that Paul wants us to do. They see what St Paul writes as loosely connected sayings about how we should live.

Closer examination, however, reveals that there's nothing random about what Paul writes. This is a carefully constructed passage. St Paul uses various rhetorical devices, which are clear if you hear the passage read out aloud in Greek, but which, sadly, are lost in translation. I've tried to give you a better idea of the passage or at least part of the passage on the order of service this morning.

As I have said, St Paul begins by stating his theme, let love be real, let love be genuine. And because the word love can mean different things to different people, St Paul tries to banish any sentimentality by explaining what it is that he means. We are to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Love involves hating what is bad and discovering, discerning, what is good and holding onto it. St Paul goes on to explain that love shows itself in how we relate to one another. We are to love one another, outdo one another in showing respect and be earnest, devoted, in our concern for each other. This will lead, amongst other things, to us contributing to the needs of the saints and to welcoming strangers, being hospitable to outsiders who come to us.

In other words, for Paul, if we are to love, there is a strong emphasis on how we relate to others, both in the church and outside it. He tells us we are to bless those who persecute us, to identify with others in their need, live harmoniously together, and not have a high opinion of ourselves, but instead mix with those from less privileged backgrounds. We are to live peaceably with everyone as much as we can and under no circumstances to seek revenge. We should think about others rather than ourselves and our concern for others should extend outside the community of faith. Should we worry about what other people think of us? As far as St Paul is concerned, the answer is, ‘Yes!’ because what other people think of us is a reflection of how we think about Christ.

Well, all this seems a very tall order, doesn't it? Think about what St. Paul is asking of us. He wants us to share our gifts with each other, love one another, and live peaceably with everyone as much as it is in our power to do so. How are we to do this? It seems an impossible task. If, however, we have been following what Paul has been writing in Romans so far, we will have some understanding of how we are to do it. But St. Paul encloses a little reminder in this passage about how we are to do it.

We are to be ‘passionate in the Spirit and serve the Lord’. Your translation may have ‘be fervent in spirit and serve the Lord’. I think a better translation is ‘be passionate in the Spirit and serve the Lord’. And this will see us rejoicing in hope, persevering in suffering, and persisting in prayer. If you want a simple way to remember it, there are three words beginning with the letter P: praise, perseverance, and prayer. There is so little hope in our world, but we can rejoice in hope because Christ gives us hope. We can persevere in suffering because of the hope that Christ gives us. And the suffering we experience, rather than leading to despair, leads us to pray. To pray for the strength to bear it, but also to pray for the day when Christ will return and all suffering will cease.

In chapter 13, St Paul will discuss our obligation to the governing authorities, and he will then sum up our response to the mercies of God by writing, 'Owe no one anything except to love one another.’ (Romans 13:8). He will then encourage us to see that love, to see our response to the mercies of God, in the light of the coming day of the Lord, and he will conclude by writing, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’ (Romans 13:14).

St Paul locates our life here and now between two events: between the death of Christ and the return of Christ. These provide the basis and the impetus for how we are to live. We live in response to what God has done for us in Christ our Savior and in the light of Christ's return as our Judge.

What can we learn from all this? And what does it teach us about how we are to live? How are we to live in this ‘in-between time’ between these two pivotal events?

Well, firstly, St Paul makes clear that worship is about how we think and live. We understandably see worship as being about what we do on a Sunday: singing hymns, saying prayers, listening to the readings, and trying to listen to the sermon. But worship in the New Testament is so much bigger than this. It includes all this, of course. But worship in the New Testament is about the offering of ourselves to God. St Paul writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

Elsewhere St Paul writes:

‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)

We are to present our bodies, who we are, as a living sacrifice to God. This is our spiritual worship. It calls for a new way of thinking and looking at our world. We are a living sacrifice, and we are to offer all we are, all our thoughts, and all we do to God as a continuous act of worship. You have all been given this morning an order of service, a liturgy, when you came into church this morning. St Paul is telling us that our diaries, our daily schedules, are to be our order of service, our liturgy, because we worship God in the smallest to the greatest act of our day.

But secondly, this offering of ourselves will requires not only a radical rethink of our attitude to God and worship, and but also to ourselves and to others. Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel reading that they must deny themselves (Matthew 16:24). This is completely alien to us today, isn't it? We are told constantly that we are to put ourselves first, and that we are to do this by believing in ourselves, by being kind to ourselves, and by making time for ourselves.

St Paul challenges this way of thinking. He tells his readers, and tells us, not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, not to be arrogant, not to claim to be wiser than we are. Our focus is not to be on ourselves and what we want but on God and what he wants.

And so finally, what God wants is for us to take seriously the needs of others. St Paul stresses the importance of our loving one another. As a vicar, I sometimes get asked, ‘Can I live the Christian life on my own?’ No, you can't. ‘Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?’ Yes, you do. ‘Isn’t it enough to read my Bible, say my prayers, and try to live a good life?’ No, it isn't. Because living the Christian life on our own is not how God has designed it.

St Paul tells us we are all given gifts, all are given gifts, but not the same gifts, and we all need all those gifts to live as God wants. To worship God as we should means we need each other, you need the gifts that I have, and I need the gifts that you have, we need to share our gifts in the body of Christ.

The problem is we don't think we need each other, and so going to church has become for many people something of an optional extra. The reason why it was so easy for us to give up going to church over Covid was because we didn't have a serious enough view of the Church before it. We are one body in Christ and individually members of one another, St Paul writes (Romans 12:5). We are a community of faith, and that community needs to come together bodily, physically, to function in the way God intended. I certainly appreciate all the resources that there are online, and I try to avail myself of them. But it's not enough. You need me and I need you.

Responding to the mercies of God, then, really does involve a complete rethink in how we see God and worship, ourselves, and each other. St Paul closes his explanation of love and our passage this morning on the same note with which he began it.

He began by telling his readers to hate what is evil and to cling to what is good. He closes by saying, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.

May we overcome evil with love, love that is real, as we seek to serve the Lord passionately in the Spirit.


Sunday, September 03, 2023

The Renewed Mind

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at the link below!

The Renewed Mind

The Renewed Mind

Romans 12:1-8

Over the summer, we've been reading through St Paul's letter to the Romans, and today we reach Romans chapter 12. In Romans chapter 12, St Paul begins a new section of the letter, and it's very much a practical section in which St Paul talks about how we are to live out our Christian lives. I think many people breathe something of a sigh of relief when they get to Romans chapter 12 because they feel we can leave behind all the theoretical, heavy stuff that we've been looking at in chapters 1 to 11. In the following chapters, from chapter 12 onwards, St Paul really gets down to practicalities. For example, in Romans 13, he will tell people that they have to pay their taxes. Perhaps when we get onto that, we'll wish ourselves back in Romans 1 to 11!

We shouldn't, however, be too quick to leave behind chapters 1 to 11, because St Paul himself links what he is about to say in chapters 12 to 16 with what he has said in chapters 1 to 11. In chapters 1 to 11, he closes by writing of the mercy of God. In the light of all that he has had to say in chapters 1 to 11, St Paul now asks his readers to do certain things and to live out what he has written in a certain way. Given God's mercy shown to us in Christ, this is how we should respond.

But you might say, ‘Oh, but Ross, I've been away on holiday over the summer. I've missed all your amazing sermons on chapters 1 to 11. How do I know what those mercies are?’ The good news, everybody, is that they are available online in the normal places. So go back, listen to them, and then you'll know what we're talking about!

In Romans chapter 12, verse one, St. Paul tells us that we are to present our bodies to God, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. The Jews presented the dead bodies of animals in worship. St Paul tells us we are to present our own living bodies in worship. St Paul means by this that we need to offer God not just individual acts of obedience, but the whole of ourselves, all that we are, in His service. We are to do what God wants us to do. We are to do His will.

But how are we to know what God wants of us? How are we to know what his will for us is? Well, we cannot know while our outlook is conformed to this world and to its way of thinking and doing things. We need a complete change of mindset. St. Paul writes that we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, because it's only with renewed minds that we will be able to know, to discern God's will.

These are such important verses. Many people, understandably, want to concentrate on what we do. What we do, however, depends on how we think. In other words, our minds matter. It is only when we understand something of what St Paul has been saying in Romans 1-11, that we will be able to work out what God's will for us is. Our offering of ourselves is a reasoned response to God's mercy as St Paul has described it.

So, we need above all things to get our thinking straight. Those of you who do listen to my sermons will know that I believe that many parts of the church have fallen victim to some strange thinking. It is no wonder, then, that we find it hard to discern God's will for us. St Paul wants us to think differently to the world around us. We are not to take the values and attitudes of this world and baptize them into the Church, but to be transformed, to be renewed in our minds and in our thinking.

The first thing St Paul tells us we will think differently about when our minds are renewed is ourselves. The danger for all of us is to think too highly of ourselves. You've probably heard the phrase, ‘he or she has a very high opinion of themselves’. The first thing our renewed mind needs to do is not to think highly of ourselves but to think with sound judgment. The Bible version that we use in church says with ‘sober judgment’. I think that doesn't quite capture the right nuance somehow. ‘Sound judgment’ is the sense of Paul's word here. In other words, St Paul wants us to see ourselves as created and loved by God but also dependent on God and powerless to do anything without him. St Paul encourages us to appreciate the gifts that God gives us, not with a view to finding fulfillment for ourselves, but to discover how we can find our place in the body of Christ and to know what that place is.

St Paul writes that we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. This, I think, is a very important insight. In some political philosophies, the individual counts for nothing or for very little. What matters is not individual freedom, but the greater good of the State. I think this is the basic idea behind communism.

In other systems, however, the emphasis is firmly on the individual. We must all be allowed to pursue our own goals and ambitions, free from external control and constraints, and this, I would suggest, underlies Western capitalism. It is behind what is often described as the ‘American dream’. Everyone can be a winner. The reality is, however, that there have to be losers too.

The Lionesses, England women's football team, were held up as individuals who had followed their dreams. But as the Lionesses have realized, sometimes you have to wake up from your dreams. The Lionesses, at least, will wake up to a big paycheck, certainly a bigger paycheck than I will ever see! Others are not so fortunate. They wake from their dreams battered, bruised, and bereft. And if you want another B, many wake up bankrupt, bankrupt emotionally, financially, and mentally.

State socialism doesn't work, neither does idealistic individualism. So where does the answer lie? St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 7, ‘What have you that you did not receive?’ Seeing that what we have comes from God, gives us purpose and direction, the purpose and direction we need. St Paul writes in our reading that we each have gifts that differ according to the grace we have been given. We are individuals in the body of Christ. We are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.

Our gifts differ. Your gifts are different to mine. I am different to you. But the gifts that we are given are not to benefit ourselves, but to benefit the body of Christ, to enable us to serve in the body of Christ.

The world we are not to be conformed to teaches us to ask, ‘What can I get?’ Jesus teaches us to ask, ‘What can I give?’ The Gospel does not focus on what the benefit is to us, but what use I can be to others. Jesus taught that it is in giving that we receive, and that the measure we give will be the measure we receive back (Luke 6:38).

The service God is calling me to is not the same as the service God is calling you to, but he is calling each one of us, without exception, to service, and what is more, he has given us the grace we need to accomplish the service he has allotted to us. Some people don't have a high opinion of themselves but instead despise themselves and even harm themselves. They think they're useless and have no gifts. St Paul would challenge both those who have a high opinion of themselves and those who have a low opinion of themselves to look away from themselves, and instead look to the love of God; to look at what God thinks of us and what God can do through us.

Well, the relevance of all this today should be clear. We are today commissioning those who will help lead us in worship and in the teaching of our children. With this we come back to what Paul writes about not being conformed to this world. As our children start back at school very soon, it is our children who are actively being taught, everywhere they go, in everything they do, and in everything they see, to conform to this world and to its lies. They are being given the values and attitudes of this world.

Our children need people who are transformed with renewed minds to teach them the love of God and to help them understand God's love for them. We are, then, especially grateful today to those who are willing to undertake this work and commit to it. In a moment, we will formally commission them for it.

This year in Sunday School and Junior Church will be starting an exciting new curriculum. It's not only new to us; it’s only just been released - in June, in fact. This new curriculum is one which focuses fully on the Bible and on God's message to us. Because if our minds are to be renewed and if we are to be transformed, we need to hear God's word to us. And having heard it, we need to obey it. St Paul will write later in chapter 15 of Romans:

‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.’ (Romans 15:4)

It is not just our children who need to hear the Word of God. Each and every one of us needs to hear it. The messages we hear in the world around us are often messages of despair and of defeat. It is the instruction of the Scriptures that gives us hope.

So today, as we commit and commission our teachers and those who will lead us in our worship of God, may we also commit ourselves, each one of us, to listening to the Word of God, so that our minds may be renewed and our lives transformed as we offer ourselves wholly and completely to God.

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

May God grant us to present ourselves to him in service and may he do great things through us in the weeks and months ahead.


Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Mercy of God

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at the link below!

The Mercy of God

The Mercy of God

Romans 11.1-2, 29-32

In our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus is asked by a Canaanite woman to help her disturbed daughter. Jesus ignores her. The disciples want him to send her away. She's being a nuisance. Jesus explains that he was sent only to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24). She's a Canaanite; she doesn't belong. But the woman kneels before Jesus saying simply, ‘Lord help me’ (Matthew 15:25).

Jesus's reply to her is shocking, ‘It's not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.’ (Matthew 15:26). Her reply is famous, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table’ (Matthew 15:27). Jesus, impressed by her reply, heals her daughter.

We focus on Jesus's reply and his healing of her daughter. But Jesus’ words when read plainly seem offensive. We've got so used to seeing Jesus as the universal Savior; the One who has come to all and who welcomes all. We don't see him as the One who came just to a select few. His message, we believe, encourages belief in diversity, in equity, and in inclusivity. Indeed, these principles are an expression of the Gospel itself. It shocks and offends us when Jesus doesn't seem to believe in these principles himself.

And in a very real sense, he doesn't. We forget that God chose Israel to be his people. It was to Israel that the Law was given. It was to Israel that the prophets were sent, and the promises were made. Whatever else, reading the Scriptures, it's clear that Israel is at the centre of God's purposes. So, what Jesus says about only coming to the lost sheep of the house of Israel seems obvious.

The Messiah had been promised to Israel. If Jesus was the Messiah, then by definition it was to Israel that he had come. St John puts it plainly, ‘he came unto his own’, he writes (John 1:11). He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel! Once we understand this, and most Christians don't, we can begin to understand the problem that St Paul is addressing in our reading from Romans this morning.

If Jesus came unto his own, if he came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, why didn't Israel accept him? And why did the Gentiles to whom he wasn't sent receive him instead? St Paul addresses the obvious explanation. Maybe the reason why the Jewish people aren't turning to Christ in St Paul's day is because God himself has rejected them. Has God decided to give up on the Jewish people and focus on the Gentiles? This is the question that St Paul is addressing.

Now, although we would not put it quite like this, many Christians think that this is exactly what has happened. Not that God has rejected individual Jews, but rather that the Jewish people as a whole are not special anymore. Very often you will find in the Church that people believe that the Jewish people are now no different and not in any different position to anyone else.

So, has God rejected his people (Romans 11:1)? St Paul dismisses the idea. St Paul points out that he himself is a good Jew, and while the Jews may not be responding now to the Gospel, he writes, this has also been the case in the past. In the time of Elijah, for example, it was just a faithful remnant who refused to bow the knee to Baal. The rest refused to hear what God was saying to them. And so too, St Paul writes, now in his day, there is a faithful remnant and he is part of it.

But why had the majority of Jews failed to respond? The answer, of course, is that they had stumbled over the historical reality of Jesus. St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that it was the fact of the crucifixion which caused all the problems (1 Corinthians 1:23). A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. The Messiah was meant to be victorious, not defeated, not die on a cross. They could not and would not accept a crucified Messiah. But, St Paul asks, did that mean that the Jewish people had now fallen out of favour? Did it mean they had stumbled to fall? (Romans 11:11). Has God given up on Israel and the Jewish people?

Well, the answer to this question is not quite so straightforward as it seems, because, as I've said, most Christians would say that while God has not given up on individual Jews, Israel as a distinct group, Christians would often argue, has now been superseded by the Church. The Church, many people believe, is the new Israel. The Church continues where Israel, because of her rejection of the Messiah, left off. Jews are welcome to join the church on the same basis as everyone else. But now it's by faith in Christ not birth as a Jew. It's all over for the Jewish people and for Israel as a distinct entity as far as many Christians are concerned.

Now not everyone is happy with this way of thinking. Some evangelicals, in the States especially, see a continuing role for Israel and come up with all sorts of schemes and systems including timetables and calendars to explain what that purpose is.

St Paul absolutely rejects the idea that God will abandon Israel and the Jewish people. He writes that they still figure and have a place in God's plan. In verse 29 of our reading, St Paul writes that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. Equally, however, St Paul does not have a system or timetable for what God's plan is for his ancient people. Jesus himself said to his disciples, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons’ (Acts 1:7). But what God does want us to know, and what God wants us to be sure of, is that he is faithful and merciful.

The fact that so many of the Jewish people had rejected the Gospel and were persecuting those who accepted it could be seen as God's rejection of Israel. St Paul is anxious to explain that God keeps his promises and that his desire is not to punish or reject, but to have mercy and to forgive. What St Paul is explaining is how the Gospel impacts the Jews, on the one hand, and the Gentiles, on the other. But what he writes is relevant to us as individual believers as well because the fact of Israel's failure to believe raises two important questions, questions about God himself.

The first question is, can God be trusted to stand by his promises to us? And secondly, can we be sure of God's mercy? What happens when we fail to fulfill God's purposes for us and let him down? Will God abandon us to the consequences of our decisions and actions? Are we to live in fear of rejection?

The first thing to say is that actions have consequences. As you sow, so shall you reap, writes St Paul in Galatians. And this is true purely on a human level. What we do has consequences. But it is not a case of God just being passive and allowing us to face the consequences of our actions. St Paul describes how God actively intervenes and punishes wickedness and sin. We cannot presume on the forgiveness and goodness of God, and too much Christian teaching gives the impression that this is exactly what we are doing. Too much Christian teaching implies that God is simply too nice to judge us and will forgive us whatever. That simply is wrong.

Secondly though, God will not cast us off forever. Despite our cuddly view of God, often when we fall or fail we do feel guilt. We do feel guilty when we mess up and do things that are wrong. We're all too conscious very often, aren't we, of the wrong we have done and the mistakes we have made? Often, we find it hard to forgive ourselves, let alone ask God to forgive us. St Paul makes clear that God does judge us and does hold us to account, God does want us to live according to his will, but he also knows that we are flesh, that we're human and mortal, that we're weak, and that we fail. God, St Paul writes, is a God of mercy who forgives all who are sorry, who repent, and who return to him.

This means acknowledging our mistakes, admitting our wrongdoings, and accepting our failure. And this can be difficult. We want to believe in ourselves, don't we? We want to see ourselves as strong and capable, that there's nothing that we cannot do if we want to. Tonight, the Lionesses will be playing Spain in the World Cup final. And all over social media for the past few days there have been posts about what we can learn from the women football players. They are seen as an example of how you can do it if you believe in yourself; you can achieve anything if you know your goal and if you follow your dream. Believe in yourself and you too can be a Lioness!

We don't want to face up to our weakness and to be challenged to see that we can't always achieve what we want to achieve. And seeing ourselves as we truly are is often too painful to bear and certainly too painful to bear on our own. God, however, wants us to face up to our weaknesses. He already knows what we're like. He knows what we have done, where we have failed, and he knows the wrong we're capable of doing. He knows everything there is to know, and yet, St Paul writes, he still loves us and goes on loving us. St Paul asks, at the end of Romans chapter 8, what can separate us from the love of God. And his answer is quite simply, nothing. Knowing that God wants to show us mercy and grant us forgiveness and peace can change everything. It can change us - if we let it.

In Romans chapters 1 to 11, St Paul discusses some really serious and heavy topics. The Gospel and salvation, judgment and sin, righteousness and faith, the Law and the Spirit, Israel and the people of God. There are many ways he could have brought his discussion of this section of the letter to a close, but he does so by focusing on the mercy of God. As we will go on to see next week, it is the mercy of God that gives us the confidence we need to live for God. For if God is not merciful, there's no point in going on, there is no point in trying to serve him, for we will fail, and we will fall short of being the person even we know we should be, let alone be the person God wants us to be. But knowing that despite our weakness, our failure and sin, God still loves us, accepts us, and welcomes us back when we fail, enables us to overcome our shortcomings, leave behind our disappointments, guilt, and regrets, and look with hope to the future.

St Paul concludes chapter 11 with these words:

‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.’ 
(Romans 11:33–36)

We will never be able fully to understand God. God remains above us and beyond us, but, in his mercy, he has come to us in Christ, and in Christ he accepts us just as we are. But he doesn't leave us as we are. He encourages and enables us to become the person in Christ that we can be.

May we experience God's mercy and by His mercies may we live for Him.


Monday, July 17, 2023

The Wretched Man

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at this link:

The Wretched Man

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 7:13-25

Consider the following two statements:

1. ‘Human beings are fundamentally good; there is good in everyone.’

You will often hear this said or see it written on inspirational pictures posted online, and we desperately want to believe it. We want to believe that we are all basically good, despite the evil that we see in the world around us. Take Ukraine, for example. Good people, good Christian, church-going people, are committing what are regarded as crimes even in a time of war: torture, murder, rape. Despite their supposed innate goodness, humans like you and me, are still doing evil.

2. ‘I couldn't help myself; I had to do it. I had no choice.’

People often explain their behavior, particularly their bad behavior, by appealing to some inner compulsion or drive over which they have no control. And this explanation of their behavior is often used by people who would otherwise resent being told they had no free will, or that they are unable to do what they want to do! They see no apparent contradiction between claiming that they had no control over something they have done, and at the same time believing that they are free to do what they want to do.

So, which is it? Are we basically good and free to choose how we live? Or are we captive to forces over which we have no control? Well, the reply that is often given is that we are indeed free, but we're free to choose and that includes being free to choose to do evil and that itself includes choosing to give in to both internal and external forces. However, the replier will go on to explain, there is still good in people if you look for it.

Well, St Paul would disagree fundamentally with this explanation. He wouldn't disagree that some people want to do good, but he would disagree with the idea that we have either the freedom or ability to do it.

In our reading from Romans for this week, St Paul, having described a struggle with sin, writes, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)’. Who is this wretched man? Is St Paul speaking of himself personally or is he speaking more generally, with himself as the representative of a type or of a group? And when did this wretched man's struggle take place? Did it take place before he came to Christ? Or is St Paul describing the experience of everyone including that of every believer?

The wretched man, in Romans chapter 7, wants to do good and to resist sin but finds himself powerless and unable to do so. Instead, he finds himself doing the very sin he hates. While there are many different variations, there are basically only two ways of understanding and interpreting what St Paul says in Romans chapter 7, that is, the pessimistic or the ultra-pessimistic way of interpreting it.

The pessimistic way understands St Paul to be saying that outside of Christ, before someone comes to faith in Christ, they are incapable of doing even the good they want to do. The ultra-pessimistic way of interpreting it understands St Paul to be saying that no-one, not even a believer, can ultimately resist the power of sin. And there are people who argue for either of these interpretations. But what, on either interpretation, has led St Paul to such a depressing view of the human condition?

It used to be said that St Paul was reflecting the experience of someone who was a believer but who wanted to keep the Law. In other words, St Paul is describing his own experience as a Pharisee before he came to faith in Christ. This understanding of the chapter has largely been abandoned by scholars nowadays. This is because elsewhere in his letters, this is not how St Paul remembers his experience before he became a believer. He writes to the Philippian church that when he was a Pharisee keeping the Law, he was blameless when it came to righteousness under the Law (Philippians 3:6). Here in Romans chapter 7, however, St Paul writes of the impossibility of keeping the Law.

Now it's important to see that St Paul is not saying that people never keep the Law or that they never do good. Rather he is saying that we are unable to keep the Law as the Law itself demands. Let me give an example.

Suppose on the way home from church this morning, you're driving down the freeway, and you're stopped by the police for speeding. And the police officer says to you, ‘You were speeding sir (or madam).’ And you reply, ‘Officer I've kept to the speed limit for most of the freeway. It's only just now that I've broken the speed limit.’ You wouldn't get a pat on the back from the police officer for having kept the speed limit for seven eighths of a mile and only sped for the last eighth. You would be given a ticket! You have broken the law.

So, which is it in Romans chapter 7? Is it the pessimistic interpretation or the ultra-pessimistic interpretation that we should go for? Well, I started to write my own interpretation of Romans chapter 7 for the sermon this week, and you would still be here at midday if I was to read it out! Instead, for those of you who are members of the Facebook Group, I'll post it this week. So, if you want to read the logic behind what I'm going to say, it will be there for you to look at. What follows is a summary of it!

I think that Paul is pessimistic about any attempt to do good outside of faith in Christ. However, for someone who has come to faith in Christ, St Paul has the confidence that in Christ that person can defeat sin; that, as a believer, we can be freed from sin's power and control. This, then, explains the identity of the wretched man in Romans chapter 7.

The wretched man is indeed St Paul himself, but St Paul writing as the representative of all who want to do good by keeping God's commandments. But it is St Paul also writing as the representative of those who haven't yet come to faith in Christ but who, nevertheless, still want to do good. St Paul is looking back on his life as a Pharisee perhaps, but looking back from the vantage point of faith, and he is looking back on his life differently. He sees the reality of his former life, and he sees the reality of all those who, like him, are genuine in their effort to keep the Law. He sees, though, that their effort to do good will ultimately come to nothing. And it will come to nothing because they simply do not have the power and the ability to do good. St Paul describes in Romans how we need to die both to sin and die to the Law itself.

In Romans chapter 6, St Paul describes how when we're baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his death; we die to sin. But in Romans chapter 7, at the very beginning of the chapter, he writes something that to any good Jew would seem absolutely incredible, indeed, almost blasphemous. St Paul writes that we have died to God's Law. St Paul writes that we no longer serve God that way. We now serve, St Paul writes, in the new way of the Spirit (Romans 7:6). He will go on to describe that new way of the Spirit in Romans chapter 8.

In Romans chapters 1 to 5, St Paul has spent a lot of time describing the human condition. He describes how it is one of sin, how we are all sinners, and how we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Here in Romans chapter 7, he shows one of the terrible consequences of this. We not only sin; we are under the power of sin, which means not being able to do good. Seeing ourselves like this, as sinners controlled by sin and unable to do good, may lead to despair. St Paul cries out, ‘Who will deliver me from this body of death?’. But St Paul knows the answer. He writes, ‘Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Who will deliver me? St Paul knows the answer. But do we?

We resist this pessimistic assessment of our condition outside of Christ. We insist, don't we, on believing in our own innate goodness and our freedom to choose how we live our lives despite all the evidence to the contrary? We refuse to admit our inability to keep God's Law and to live as even we know we should live. We refuse to see the reality of our condition, and our stubborn refusal to see the reality of our condition is itself part of our wretchedness. Who will deliver us indeed?

Sin not only prevents us from doing good, it has led us to believe that we actually can do good. We need to understand ourselves, our sinfulness, our powerlessness, our hopelessness.

The desire to understand ourselves is itself a common one. Hence people will sign up for psychotherapy sessions, will take psychometric tests, and will submit themselves to psychological assessments. And the desire for self-knowledge is a good one, when it is motivated by a wish to be a better person. Sadly, all too often, it's just part of our ongoing self-obsession. The need for self-knowledge, however, is a common theme in philosophy and in religion in general.

But here's the thing: true self-knowledge can only be found when we come to know God. We can never see ourselves as we are until we see ourselves, as St Catherine of Siena put it, in the mirror of God. It is only when we come to know God in Christ that we gain true self-knowledge, for it is only God who sees us completely and who understands us entirely. But when we see ourselves as God sees us, it can be desperately frightening, because to see ourselves in the light of God is to become aware of the darkness in each one of us. It is to become aware of our weakness, failure, and unworthiness. When St Peter saw himself as Christ saw him, he said to our Lord, ‘Depart from me O Lord for I am a sinful man (Luke 5;8)’. But it is when we see ourselves as God sees us that we also see that God loves us as we are, as wretched, as weak, as failures, as unworthy.

I've told you in the past about how when I was just a schoolboy at secondary school, a teacher challenged me and said to me, ‘Ross, do you know God?’ And that was the beginning of my journey of faith. The same teacher also said to me at the same time, ‘Ross, Jesus didn't come to die so we could be forgiven for our sins. And I was a bit taken aback by this, because that was standard Christian teaching: Jesus died for our sins. But he said that no, God had been forgiving sins throughout history. The Old Testament is full of God forgiving sins. The problem was God forgave sins and people went on sinning afterwards. Forgive sin, sin, forgive sin: it was a cycle. God wanted, this teacher explained, to end the cycle. God wanted not only to forgive us our sins, but to make it possible for us to overcome sin. And that's what Paul is writing about in Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8. God not only wants to forgive us our sins, which, of course, he does, God wants to deal with our sin. He wants to make it possible for us to be freed from sin. He wants to enable us to serve him in the new way of the Spirit.

When we look at ourselves, we all too often compare ourselves with others, and so we think we're not doing too badly. But in the presence of God, all is revealed, and we see our wretchedness. The wretched man of Romans chapter 7 is each one of us outside of Christ. And when we see our wretchedness, we too cry out, who will deliver me? And it's in that cry, it is in that moment of despair that we come to see the power of God to change us and to free us. It is when we see our wretchedness that we also see that deliverance is to be found in Christ. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.