Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The First Sunday of Trinity

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

The First Sunday of Trinity


• Genesis 18:1-15 (page 12)
• Romans 5:1-8 (page 917)
• Matthew 9:35-10:8 (page 790)

For our second reading for the next 14 Sundays, we are going to be reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter has been the most influential single piece of writing in the history of the Church. Its importance cannot be overstated. We are beginning today at chapter 5. Well, you have to begin somewhere, but you will notice that chapter 5 begins, ‘Therefore’. Our passage this morning is a conclusion to what St Paul has written so far in the letter. We need to have a bit of an idea, then, as to what he has said in the first four chapters.

Before looking at that, we need to step back and ask what motivated St Paul to write Romans in the first place. It’s the winter, probably of AD 57. St Paul is in Corinth (Acts 20:1-3), where he is preparing to go to Jerusalem with a financial collection he has organized in support of the Church there. His mind, however, is on two other journeys he hopes to make after his journey Jerusalem. The first is to Rome itself (Romans 1:11; 15:23), and then, secondly, beyond it to Spain (Romans 15:24).

St Paul had not been to Rome before, even though it had a Church there (Romans 1:13; 15:23). This is a good reminder that St Paul, contrary to what is often said about him, was not the real founder of Christianity nor was he even the second. There was much going on in the growth and spread of the Church apart from what was going on in the work of St Paul, important though that was.

While Rome had a Church, Spain did not. No-one had made it yet to Spain with the Gospel, and St Paul wanted to go and preach the Gospel there. He hoped the Church in Rome would help and support him in this mission. Although St Paul hadn’t been to Rome, he, nevertheless, had many friends and associates there. He greets some of them at the end of the letter in chapter 16. Others in Rome, however, while not knowing St Paul, would have heard of him, and not all that they had heard would have been good.

Amazingly, St Paul tells the Romans that even though he is taking a large sum of money to the Church in Jerusalem, he is not sure they will accept it (Romans 15:31). Such was the dislike and antipathy towards him. What was the problem?

We need now to re-orientate ourselves. We are used to thinking of the Church as a universal religion distinct from Judaism. This distinction would have made no sense to anyone in the early Church. Jesus had come as the Messiah to the people of God who were the Jews. In our first reading, we have heard how God chose the people of Israel to be his ‘treasured possession out of all the peoples’ (Exodus 19:5). In our Gospel reading, we see how, during his earthly ministry, Jesus told his disciples that, like him, they are to only go to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 9:6). The Church initially saw its job as continuing Jesus’ mission in this way to God’s people. 

It began to become plain to them, however, that God now wanted Gentiles to be welcomed and included as well. Unfortunately, Jesus had not left them any guidelines or instructions as to how this was to happen, so the Church had to work it out for themselves. Most in the Church just assumed that Gentiles should be welcomed and included as full members of the Church on the same basis as they themselves were and by doing what they did. This meant that, like them, Gentiles who believed in Jesus and wanted to join the Church should keep God’s Law as God himself had revealed it to his people and had explained it in the ministry of Jesus. No more and no less.

The reason people were suspicious of St Paul was that he disagreed with this and, worse still, seemed to be undermining how they lived as good Jews. When St Paul got to Jerusalem after his winter in Corinth, St James and the leaders of the Church there said this to him:

‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 21:20-21)

Instead of telling Gentile believers that they should keep God’s Law, St Paul instead had the reputation of telling Jewish believers that they should not! This was at the heart of the problem. 

By the winter of AD57, St Paul had been actively engaged in ministry for about 25 years. For the past ten or so of these years, he had been working in the Aegean region, that is, Greece and Turkey today. As he prepares to seek the Church in Rome’s support for the next phase of his ministry, St Paul wants to introduce himself to the Church at Rome and deal with any misunderstandings they might have about him. He seeks to explain just what he does believe and teach about the Law and tries to answer in advance any questions that they might have.

Romans isn’t a general statement of Christian theology or a systematic statement of the Gospel - as many wrongly think. There is much that St Paul doesn’t discuss, quite simply, because he didn’t need to. There was agreement in the Church and between the Churches, including St Paul, over everything that mattered. It was just this one area that caused all the trouble, but it was a highly emotional and controversial area, and St Paul was at the centre of it.

In Romans 1-4, St Paul begins by explaining how Jew and Gentile are equal. He recognizes that in the plan and purposes of God the Jewish people have priority. The Gospel, he writes, is the power of God to salvation to the Jew first. But, he continues, it is also to the Greek, that is, the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). He spends quite a bit of time explaining the equality of Jew and Gentile. Both alike, he writes, are equal in their sin, and they will be judged by God equally because of it.

This calls for a further reorientation in our thinking. We begin today when talking about how people are all equal by focusing on how all people are created equal in God’s sight and on how God loves all people equally. St Paul focuses on how all people are equally sinners in God’s sight and on how angry God is with all people equally. After his initial introduction to the letter, St Paul begins by writing:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of those who by their unrighteousnessness suppress the truth.’ (Romans 1:18)

He sums up his argument about human equality in these words:

‘There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …’ (Romans 3:23)

All are equally in sin and all will judged equally for it. He writes:

‘For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.’ (Romans 2:9-12)

This idea of human equality is a key point in St Paul’s argument. We are all equally bad and all equally facing the wrath and judgement of God. To put it another way: we are all enemies of God who are going die. There can be no peace for us until this war with God, which we insisted on starting and are determined to continue fighting, comes to an end.

St Paul describes how, however, God himself has opened up a way for us to find peace by sending his Son to die for us. We can now be ‘justified by his blood’, that is, by Jesus’ death (Romans 5:9).

The word ‘justified’ as a translation into English of the word St Paul uses misses the connection with what St Paul has been saying. It belongs to the same group of words as the word ‘righteous’. It would be better translated as ‘righteoused’. Some translations have translated it ‘made righteous’ or ‘declared righteous’. We need to be ‘righteoused’ because the wrath of God is coming equally to those who are unrighteous and that, as St Paul has explained, is all of us. God, though, has taken the initiative to make peace possible. There was nothing we could do; we were too lost, weak, and helpless for that. But God has done in it for us, and all we have to do is to receive it as a gift. We receive it, St Paul has just told the Romans, in the verses before our reading, ‘by faith’.

We cease to be ‘unrighteous’ and become ‘righteous’ by faith in Christ through his death for us.

And so, St Paul begins our second reading:

‘Therefore having been justified (righteoused) by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 5:1)

St Paul is blown away by this. He can’t get over how God showed his love for us by sending Christ to die for us ‘while we were yet sinners’; while we were people still at war with God, demonstrating and protesting against him. What is more this love of God for us has now been ‘poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom God has given us’ (Romans 5:5).

For some reason, our reading this morning stops in the middle of what St Paul is saying. He, in fact, finishes this conclusion to the first four chapters of the letter by telling the Romans:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’ (Romans 5:9)

The wrath of God is not behind us once we have come to faith in Christ; it is still ahead of us. But we will be saved from it if we have faith in Christ. If while we were still his enemies, God has reconciled us to himself, St Paul goes on to write, much more surely now we are reconciled will we be saved (Romans 5:10). We can now face the future with hope.

St Paul is going to continue in his letter to the Romans to build on the foundation of what he has written in chapters 1-4. He will explain what its implications are for how we think about sin, the Law, the new life in the Spirit, and the Israel. He will look at what it means practically for believers in their daily lives as they live as those who are reconciled to God. What he has to say is radical, exciting, and challenging. 

Immediately after the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem told St Paul what was being said about him, he was arrested and prevented from being able to explain himself and his Gospel. Thankfully, he had first sent his explanation to the Church in Rome by Phoebe, a trusted associate of his from the Church in Corinth, before journeying to Jerusalem. It means we, too, can read it if we want to. Sadly, most people don’t. And those who do, often find what St Paul writes far too radical, exciting, and challenging. And so, they manufacture a Gospel that they find more palatable and which enables them to keep control. They did it then; they are doing it now.

St Paul finishes his letter to the Romans by writing:

‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.’ (Romans 16:17-18)

In my sermons over the next 14 weeks and in the Facebook Group, I will be endeavouring to keep an eye on those who doing what St Paul warned against and ask what teaching today is in opposition to what we learn in Romans.

To close today, briefly, three things we can learn from what St Paul has written so far in Romans:

1. Equality doesn’t bring peace

I am not talking in the first place about peace on earth, although it is true of that as well. I am thinking of the far more serious issue of peace with God and the peace that comes from knowing him. In God’s sight, we are already equal. The wrath of God has been revealed and it has shown us for what we are. People who have rebelled against their Creator and who have messed up God’s creation in the process. St Paul describes this in Romans chapter one, but I don’t need to give examples, do I? Not only that, we have messed up our own lives too. Again, no examples are needed.

2. Working for equality won’t bring salvation

If equality won’t bring peace, neither will working for equality bring salvation. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t want to end exploitation and oppression. And certainly, in the Church, there should be no room for discrimination and prejudice. But you can work as hard as you like for all people to be treated the same in this world; you can seek whatever earthly utopia you may dream of; it won’t save you.

No, of course, we don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to be told that we, who have so much righteous anger against others, are as unrighteous and helpless as they are. We don’t want to hear that what we condemn in others, we are guilty of ourselves. Oh, and this is St Paul’s argument in chapter two. He writes:

‘Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.’ (Romans 2:1)

We are equal in sin and equal in the condemnation sin brings.

3. Only Christ can bring peace and salvation

Precisely because we are spiritual beings made in the image of God and not just social and political beings, social justice and political ideologies are not sufficient to save us. Not least because none of us is capable of the righteousness that is needed to create a just and fair society on earth. This is what St Paul observes at the beginning of chapter three as he says bluntly: ‘there is no-one who is righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10). 

Or, as St James, our Lord’s brother, puts it: ‘the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God’ (James 1:20). We need not the justice that comes from human campaigns and protests, but the justice that comes from God in Christ. We need to be ‘justified by his blood’ (Romans 5:9). It is only when we are justified by faith that we have peace with God.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we should not do what we can to limit the amount of injustice and unfairness on earth, but no matter how well we do, we still will not be addressing the need that is in each of us for peace and reconciliation with God and the life and salvation that can be ours in Christ. 


All our problems began, St Paul explains at the very beginning of the letter when we as humans decided we didn’t want to know the true God and we exchanged the glory of God for gods of our own. In Christ, we have the opportunity to regain that glory. That is our hope. ‘We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2), writes St Paul.

May that be our hope too today.


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