Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Third Sunday of Trinity

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity on Sunday, June 28, 2020.

The Third Sunday of Trinity


• Romans 6:12-23

‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?’ (Romans 6:15-16) 

For our second reading over the Summer, we are reading through the letter of St Paul to the Romans. It is a letter that people approach and understand in many different ways. You will find arguments over the meaning of just about every passage in it. Faced with this bewildering variety of approaches, it is tempting to give up and just cherry-pick those verses that fit our own outlook and understanding of the Christian faith. 

So, for example, we all quite like Romans 5:5 where St Paul tells us that ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’, but we are less keen on Romans 2:5 where he tells us that by our ‘hard and impenitent hearts’ we are ‘storing up wrath for ourselves on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed’. 

I am afraid that scholars are not free from this selective approach, though they perhaps disguise it better. They will often divide Romans into sections, and then decide which section they think is more central to St Paul’s theology. So, for example, it used to be the case that Romans 9-11, which discusses the place of ethnic Israel in the plan and purpose of God, was considered as something of an unimportant diversion in St Paul’s argument, and which could, therefore, be safely be ignored. Nowadays, it tends to be Romans 1:18-4 that gets this treatment. One scholar I was reading this week labels it a ‘digression’. 

Despite this disagreement, all are agreed, however, that Romans was clearly an important letter for St Paul. It is one letter in which he actually indicates his reasons for writing it. It is also one he wrote in freedom, comfort, and at leisure, over a period of a few months, while being materially provided for by close friends. In addition, he had trusted co-workers with him when he wrote and the services of a professional scribe. Given all this, we should expect what he wrote to be what St Paul specifically wanted to write and that what he wrote to have been carefully thought out beforehand. It was too important to him for it not to be. 

Rather, then, than despairing or resorting simply to quoting our favourite verses from the letter, we should step back and try to follow his argument through the whole of the letter. We should try to resist the temptation to ignore those parts that we don’t like, or which don’t fit our own ideas and beliefs. 

I have suggested that the way to begin our journey through the letter is by focusing on what St Paul himself tells us is the historical context of the letter. This is provided by the mission he is planning to Spain, using Rome as a base. The problem St Paul had was that Rome was not a Church he had founded or had even visited, so he could not simply assume that the Roman believers would support him. What is more, he was only too aware of the suspicion and opposition in certain sections of the wider Church to his understanding of the Gospel and to him personally. 

Immediately before arriving in Corinth, he had had to deal with those who had visited Corinth and had rubbished him. Rubbished, that is, both him personally and what he preached. His opponents, for their part, had promoted an understanding of the Gospel that placed emphasis on the ongoing role of the (Old Testament) Law and on their own status and standing as Jewish believers. So great was the general distrust of St Paul that he feared that the substantial amount of money he had collected and was taking as a gift to the Jerusalem Church before he went to Rome would not even be accepted by the Church there (Romans 15:31). 

St Paul was right to be fearful, and his reception by the Church in Jerusalem was at best mixed. Upon meeting the elders in Jerusalem, St Luke writes: 

‘After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.’ (Acts 21:19) 

You would think that the elders would be pleased. They are, to an extent, but they go on to explain the problem. They say 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) 

The Church, some years before this, had reached an uneasy agreement over what the Gentiles should be asked to do if they became believers. St James’ proposal that Gentiles should not be required to be circumcised, if male, or keep the Law in the ways Jews kept it had been accepted by all parties. The understanding being that Jewish believers would go on observing the Law as before. St Paul was accused of breaking this agreement. To many, his view of the Law was highly suspect. 

It was this suspicion, and the opposition that it gave rise to, that St Paul had had to contend with at Corinth. St Paul would have known that his reputation would have reached Rome and would have made some of the Church there hesitant, at the very least, about supporting him. 

We have to remember that it was not just Jewish believers who felt the Law was important. Many Gentile believers had previously been attracted to Judaism before their conversion precisely because of their respect for the Law, and now it was St Paul, himself a Jew, who seemed to be calling that respect into question. 

In introducing himself, then, St Paul has to explain his understanding of the Gospel, particularly in the light of his mission to the Gentiles, and, specifically, what his understanding of it means for how believers should now view the Law and its requirements.

St Paul begins by championing the equality of Jew and Gentile. Nowadays, we champion equality using the language of human rights and the idea of the basic goodness of every individual. St Paul does it using the language of sin and by establishing the intrinsic wickedness of everyone. 

All are equal in sin, he writes, there is ‘none that is righteous, no not one’ (Romans 3:9-10). Everyone as a consequence faces the judgement and wrath of God. All equally need saving, and to be saved the unrighteous need to become the righteous. In chapters 1-4, St Paul explains all this and describes how the unrighteous can be made righteous. The word St Paul uses for this is the Greek verb for ‘righteousing’, which unhelpfully is normally translated into English as ‘justify’. This translation obscures the connection with what St Paul has been writing about our ‘unrighteousness’ and the ‘righteousness of God’. We are ‘righteoused’ (justified) not on account of anything we are or do, but by faith in Christ and what he has done for us. 

Amazingly, writes St Paul in chapter 5, we are ‘righteoused’ (justified) by Jesus dying for us. Incredibly, this was an event that took place while we were still God’s enemies. Even though we were separated from God, sinners, who had chosen to reject him, God loved us so much that he gave his Son to die for us. 

‘For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.’ (Romans 5:10)
St Paul continues to explain how the life of Christ is given to those who are in Christ. In the same way being born human means we will die, so receiving life in Christ means we will all live. The life and death St Paul describes isn’t just physical life and death in this world, but eternal life in the world to come. God’s grace, his undeserved and abundant love, offers forgiveness and eternal life as a gift. It is a gift that was given to us who have faith in Christ even while we were still disobedient sinners trapped in sin and death. The greater have been our sins, the greater has been God’s grace. 

It is a fantastic message, but it raises the question of what happens next and of where God’s Law and commandments now fit in to all this. St Paul in the next three chapters tries to answer these questions. They come down to two questions about how believers should behave now they have experienced the grace of God in Christ and are counted righteous. They are questions that arise naturally from what St Paul has written so far in his letter. The first question St Paul states in Romans 6:1 and the second in Romans 6:15. 

1. ‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ 

2. ‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?’ 

It could be argued that if God’s grace has abounded where sin has abounded, then why not continue sinning so that there might be more grace? If sin leads to grace, let’s keep sinning, so that we might get more grace! And if we didn’t need the Law to experience God’s grace, why do we need it now? Why not just do whatever we like since we know we already have God’s grace? 

It seems that some suggested that this was exactly what St Paul taught. It was what some people in Corinth itself, where St Paul was now staying, had argued. ‘All things are lawful to me’ was their slogan, and they used this to justify visiting prostitutes and taking part in idolatrous meals at pagan temples. Romans chapters 6-7 are not an aside or a digression, but are questions about his teaching that St Paul has to answer if he is to have any credibility at all with the Roman Church. 

His answer is a shocking one. He uses a metaphor drawn from the life and experience of many of his converts. It is something that is much in the news at the moment: slavery. 

The fact that all are equal in sin and that all equally sin has been St Paul’s argument for why all equally need the grace of God in Christ. The consequence of this equality, however, is that we are all slaves to sin. There is no such thing as free-will. We have no choice but to be obedient to sin as our master. We are not only sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners and have no option. That’s what it means to be a slave. 

All this sounds very theological and theoretical, and for many who call themselves Christians that is all it is. However, for those of us who wish to have a Biblically based worldview and want to respond to events in the world in a Biblical way, it is both fundamental and intensely practical. 

As I was preparing this sermon, I read a long article in the New York Times supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The writer had little difficulty demonstrating that the United States has been a deeply unequal, racist society that has oppressed and exploited black people not only individually, but systemically and systematically. 

For a believer, this comes as no surprise. It’s what humans do and always have done. The consequence of being a slave to sin is that we not only sin as individuals, but also make societies in our own image that reflect our sin. This is to be seen in the way we organize them and in the structures and institutions we create. 

As individuals, we prioritize our ambition and making money. We respect fame and power. We despise the weak and vulnerable. It’s no surprise, then, when power, position, privilege, and prosperity become the priorities, values, and attitudes of society as a whole. What’s there to be surprised about? Recognizing and understanding this doesn’t, of course, excuse it, but it does help to explain it. 

The problem with the BLM movement and with the article I was reading in the New York Times wasn’t the sin and injustice it identified (injustice is another way of translating the word in Greek that St Paul uses for ‘unrighteousness’). While the writer’s analysis was too black and white, if you will forgive me putting it that way, the main problem with it lay in the assumption that there are goodies as well as baddies in this narrative. 

The social justice activists want to tear down, physically and metaphorically, the structures of the past and replace them with a new order and structures that are just and equitable. They, of course, will decide what these are to be and they too will be the ones to police them. And make no mistake, police them they will. Already it is becoming a thought crime to question anything they say. 

This has been tried before. The language the BLM movement is using about ‘white privilege and terror’ is exactly the language used by the Communist revolutionaries in early twentieth century Russia and which became the norm in the political discourse of the Soviet Union. It is the language used by Hitler and the Nazis in the Third Reich and by many other revolutionaries in many other places before and since. 

As George Orwell graphically illustrated, however, it is never long before the animals who take over the farm behave in the same way as those they take over from. It’s what we sinners do. We can’t help ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that in a sinful world enslaved to sin, we shouldn’t seek to limit the effects and consequences of sin. We should, however, as followers of Christ, realize that there can be no such thing as a just society, only a less unjust one. Furthermore, in this world, there are no righteous rulers, only unrighteous ones. Ones whose unrighteousness, if we are fortunate, is restrained. 

This is the understanding reflected in the language of the Collects and prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, which is a foundational text of Anglicanism. Sadly, it is not the understanding of most Anglicans today, who are more likely to be using new age language with its stress on the ability of us all to fulfil our potential, achieve our ambitions, and realize our dreams if only we are set free from the shackles of patriarchy and prejudice. 

We are encouraged now to take pride in who we are and affirm our identity as human beings. whoever we are, wherever we have come from, and however we may identify. Those who take the Bible seriously will have none of this. We know that, as humans, we have no room for pride, only shame. 

In our reading this morning, St Paul referring to the life we led before we came to Christ, asks the question: 

‘So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed?’ (Romans 6:21)

What we can boast about and take pride in is our new identity in Christ, which is ours not because of anything we are naturally or because of anything we have done, but which we receive solely as a free gift of God through the death of Christ. 

Jesus said that anyone who sins is a ‘slave to sin’ (John 8:34). But, he went on to say that ‘if the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36). St Paul writes that those who have faith in Christ have died with Christ and in dying with Christ have died to sin and been set free from it (Romans 6:6-7). As he makes plain, this doesn’t mean that we can’t sin, but that we are freed from sin as a power that enslaves us. Not free to do what we like, but free to become God’s slaves instead and slaves to the righteousness that is ours in Christ. 

Next week, we will look more closely at what this means for us as individuals, but for this week, there remains a challenge to each of us: whose slave will we be? A slave of sin which leads to death or a slave of God which leads to life? 

The big difference is, as the Collect for Peace in Book of Common Prayer puts it, for those who are slaves of God his ‘service is perfect freedom’, and it is this freedom that we are offered in Christ. 

‘O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord,
in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life,
whose service is perfect freedom;
defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies;
that we, surely trusting in thy defence,
may not fear the power of any adversaries;
through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.’


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