Saturday, July 25, 2020

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 8:18-39

There are a lot of mood swings in the letter to the Romans. It all starts off well and positively enough in chapter 1 with St Paul telling us that he is ‘not ashamed of the Gospel’ because ‘it is the power of God for salvation’ (Romans 1:16), but then he immediately goes on to tell us that the ‘wrath of God is being revealed against all the ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness’ and of human beings who ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ (Romans 1:18).

This negative mood continues for two more chapters until the mood changes in chapter 3 and returns to being positive as St Paul tells us that God has done for us in Christ what neither we nor God’s Law could do. This positive mood continues as St Paul describes how we have been ‘righteoused’ (justified) by faith and have been set free from our ‘slavery to sin’. It then turns negative again, however, in Romans 7 as St Paul describes what it is like to be human and to try to do good on our own in obedience to God’s Law. 

Thankfully, it turns positive once more in chapter 8 as St Paul tells us that there is now nothing for us to fear because God has given us the Holy Spirit to enable us to do what previously we could not do on our own. More than this, the Holy Spirit whom God has given us, enables us to call out to God as his children using the words that Jesus himself taught us: ‘Abba, Father,’ we cry. 

This was the positive note that we finished on last week as St Paul describes how we are ‘heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17)’. It is an amazing message and a good way, you would think, for St Paul to conclude his explanation of the Gospel. Who would not want to support him as he took this message to those who had not heard it in Spain?

The message that God is our Father and we his children is basically how we today conclude our own explanation of the Gospel, and it is why we get what it means to follow Christ today so wrong. St Paul himself hasn’t finished with the mood swings. Having given such a positive statement of our relationship with God, he then has to go and spoil it all for us by saying:

‘… if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.’ (Romans 8:17)

I said, last week, that in Romans 8, St Paul is picking up on what he was saying in Romans 5, after taking time in chapters 6 and 7, to answer four questions that have arisen from what he has written so far in his letter. In Romans 5, he has written how we ‘boast’ in our sufferings (Romans 5:3). Suffering, he writes, produces endurance which produces character which produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). And hope, he continues, does not disappoint us. St Paul links this lack of disappointment to the love of God that has been ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. It is to the centrality of the Holy Spirit for the believer that St Paul returns in chapter 8.

Just when we thought he was about to finish what he has been saying in these early chapters on a positive note, St Paul throws this spanner into the works, and tells us that all that he has written about in his explanation of the Gospel is conditional on us being willing to suffer with Christ. And notice that it is conditional: ‘if, in fact, we suffer with him,’ he writes.

St Paul has written about all the amazing things that God has done for us in Christ. Now, here in the present, we experience and enjoy the benefit of them. We have the Holy Spirit living in us, guiding us, enabling us to know God intimately as a child knows their parent. St Paul, however, doesn’t want the Roman believers to forget that all is not yet: ‘in hope we are saved,’ he writes. And until our hope is realized at the coming of Christ, we will as followers of Christ experience suffering as Christ himself warned his followers they would. 

St Paul’s own experience of suffering has been intense. Not long before he wrote Romans, St Paul had written to the Corinthian Christians describing the suffering he had had to experience as an apostle of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:22-32). His experience covers the complete range of suffering: physical, emotional, and psychological. In this passage, quoting Psalm 44:22, he describes it as being ‘killed all day long’ and feeling like a ‘sheep to be slaughtered’.

This is a scary prospect. St Paul is telling the Roman believers that not only do they have to suffer the pain that is common to all humans, on top of it they have to face suffering that will come uniquely to them as followers of Christ. And he writes that this is non-negotiable and unavoidable. It is a condition of their future salvation that they experience it. Given that St Paul wants the Romans to support him in his mission to Spain, he is not exactly going out of his way to make the message he wants them to get behind an easy one to support.

For St Paul, the Cross really does define what it means to be a follower of Christ. The Cross is not only a past event, it is for those who follow Christ a present reality as we share in our Lord’s suffering and pain. St Paul realizes that this is a frightening message and when the Roman believers see his deeply scarred and battered body, they will know he is not exaggerating the suffering he himself has experienced.

And so, to encourage them, he writes:

‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.’ (Romans 8:18)

St Paul wants the Romans to know that great though our experience of God is in the present, the goal of our faith lies in the future. We have been ‘righteoused’ (justified) with all that that means, but we have not yet been ‘saved’ (Romans 5:9). Salvation is going to mean much more than our experience in the present. St Paul doesn’t dismiss the pain and horribleness of the suffering, but he does hold out a vision of salvation that at least, he believes, makes it worthwhile.

So great is the glory to be revealed that the creation itself will share in it. This is massively important. Many in the Church still think of salvation in terms of us going to heaven when we die. Salvation on this view is leaving this world behind and going to live in another. This is not how the Bible describes it. God did not create this world as an experiment that he is going to abandon because it has gone wrong. He created this world for a purpose, and he is not going to rest until he achieves what he originally set out to do. Yes, things are a mess, and St Paul has explained whose fault that is, but God is going to save both us who believe in Christ and his creation along with us.

Saving the creation means that what makes us part of the creation is going to be saved as well. Our own personal salvation will only be complete when our bodies are redeemed and remade; when our bodies, and all that we are, experience the resurrection that Christ himself experienced. No, we are not going to leave our bodies behind and escape to some spiritual existence; that is not our destiny. Our destiny is what God originally planned for those who love him, and he is not giving up on his plans for us. His plan is for us to ‘be conformed to the image of his son (Romans 8:29)’.

In the meantime, however, there is much pain and much painful groaning as a result. Firstly, the creation itself is groaning as if in ‘labour pains’, and not only the creation we ourselves ‘groan inwardly’. There is, however, St Paul writes, someone else groaning. St Paul writes that as we groan in expectant pain, not knowing how or what to pray for, the Spirit himself prays for us in ‘groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26)’.

St Paul describes the Holy Spirit as having been given to us as the ‘first fruits’. The Holy Spirit is just the beginning of the glory that is to be ours, but our present experience of the Spirit guarantees what is to come, and it is meant as an encouragement and assurance to us that, although our suffering will be real and terrible, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’ as St Julian famously put it in her famous book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. This is why it is so important for us to make sure we have received the Spirit. He is the one who assures us of what God has for us in the future and who prays for us in the present.

It is the knowledge that the Holy Spirit living in us is praying for us according to the will of God that gives St Paul the confidence to write that everything, everything, that is, including our suffering and death, works together for our good. He doesn’t say that our suffering is good or that our death is good - that is a perversion of our hope - but that they work for our good.

And so, St Paul ends this chapter and this section of his letter on a truly positive note. He has talked about the need for us to be committed ‘slaves of Christ’, but he concludes by focusing not on our commitment to God, but on God’s commitment to us. God’s complete and absolute commitment to us. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What then are we to say about these things?

As followers of Christ, we should be people who look forward to what will be and who live their lives in the light of our future hope. As St Paul puts it:

'For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Romans 8:24-25)

We have largely lost this future hope. Ours is very much a faith of the moment. When we think of death at all, we assume it will involve an immediate transfer into the presence of God and, of course, it never occurs to us that we would go anywhere else. So sure are we that that there is nothing to worry about in the future in another world that we focus all our energy on the present and our life in this world.

We may express this differently. For some, the focus is on God as our Father and on all the lovely things he does for us and gives to us. It is a bit difficult and a bit embarrassing when he doesn’t and things go wrong, but we have devised various strategies to cope. And we worry about the problems when they happen, not before.

We don’t want to think on the problems, we want to think on the God who loves us and wants to bless us and make our lives lovely and happy. Our prayers are focused on just this: that we may get the job we want or the promotion we deserve; we pray that we may meet the partner of our dreams and have children who are bright, happy and healthy, and who get into all the right schools; we pray that we might find the right place to live and if we remember the right church to go to.

In other words, our prayers and desires as believers are no different to those in the world around us. The only difference is that we think God may help us to achieve them. Our hope as believers is for a middle-class lifestyle with God as an add-on.

For others, and certainly if we have an interest in social justice, we will, in addition to what we want for ourselves, perhaps be committed to making this world a better place for us and our children to live in. The Gospel of Christ is good news for the poor now, we believe, not in some imaginary future utopia. Jesus came to make people whole, we tell ourselves. His was a message of hope and inclusion for the present.

No wonder then that we jump from where in this chapter St Paul tells us we are children of God to where he tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and we leave out all the suffering and looking to the future stuff. It just doesn’t fit with our understanding of the Gospel. And that ought to make us pause and think about our understanding of the Gospel.

For in the Gospel reading itself this morning, Jesus himself challenges our way of thinking. He says to his disciples:

‘So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 13:49-50)

Everything that St Paul writes in Romans and everything that our Lord said and did was predicated on the belief that there would one day be a day of reckoning. A day when the righteous would be separated from the wicked. This is why St Paul in Romans spends so much time discussing how we can be ‘righteoused’ and live righteously as slaves of righteousness.

This day of reckoning is not just about us as individuals, it is the day set by God when the glory that St Paul talks about this morning will be revealed in us and when the creation itself will share in it. Our bodies will be redeemed and the creation will be set free from its bondage to decay: a bondage to which it was subjected by God himself because of our refusal to honour God as God (Romans 1:21). We became futile in our thinking, St Paul wrote chapter 1, and so God subjected the world we lived in to futility. We got what we wanted.

There will be many sermons this week talking about creation on the basis of this passage, and the message will be that we need to care for the creation and do what we can to avoid, and indeed reverse, the environmental damage caused by pollution and human activity. That really is just common sense, but it is not what this passage is about.

This passage is about the damage and pollution caused by sin and death. Sin has polluted the creation and brought corruption and decay to it. We are slaves of sin and the creation shares that slavery. (St Paul uses the same Greek word to describe both.) As we groan, waiting the redemption of these bodies of death, so too the creation groans longing to share the freedom that one day will be ours in Christ. But this will be achieved not by environmental campaigns, good and worthy though they may be, it will only be achieved by an act of God at the coming of Christ.

So where does this leave us in the present? Are we not to care about our life now or about the world around us in which we live? We are to care very much, but the way we care needs reorienting from the present and its needs to the future and our hope. We need to live our lives in the present in the light of what our lives will be in the future. We are, as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, to set our ‘minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Colossians 3:2).

Our outlook and mindset is to be shaped by the Spirit. Our worldview is to be that of the Kingdom of God not of the Kingdom of this world. Our values, priorities, and attitudes are to be those of the Gospel of Christ. This means recognizing that it is only Christ who can satisfy the longings of our hearts and minds. We will not find satisfaction in this world or the things of this world.

Some may ask: but why not if this world was created by God? It is quite simply precisely because this world has been subjected to futility. Not only is it in slavery to ‘decay’, so that everything in it dies and turns to dust, everything it offers is ultimately pointless, worthless, and empty. That is why it groans and longs to share in what Christ is doing for us and in us.

No, if we want lasting satisfaction, purpose, and peace we must seek it outside of this world. This is what our Lord is trying to teach us in the parables in this week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). We are to be like the person who finds treasure in a field and who sells all that he has to buy the field or the merchant who discovers a ‘pearl of great price’ and who too sells all that he has to buy it.

The futile offerings of this world are nothing compared to the treasure that is offered to us in Christ. We need to abandon the worthless trinkets this world offers to acquire the pearl of great price. But as our Lord and St Paul warn, this will be at a price: the cost of all we own. Christ calls us to suffer with him in this world if we are to be glorified with him in the next. 

‘Abba, Father,’ we cry and the gifts our Father gives us are, as St Paul describes them: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword (Romans 8:35). All very different to the ones today’s believers seek and the pictures of which are posted on social media. But it is to this that we are called.

For we are the Church of the martyrs: those who are called to suffer and die for Christ; sometimes physically to die for him. Like St Peter and St Paul, who died in the very place this letter was written to. Like St James, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday. Like Saints Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions, who I have talked about before, and like countless others who ‘loved not their lives unto death’ and ‘of whom this world was not worthy’, but to whom our Lord promised a ‘crown of life’.

The Risen Lord says in Revelation:

‘To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:7)

St Paul closes this passage and section of Romans by telling the Roman believers that, in all these things that happen to us in this world, we are ‘more than conquerors through him who loved us’. 

And nothing and no-one can ever separate us from his love.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 8:1-17

Previously, we have seen how St Paul has described in Romans 7 what it is like to want to do good, as it is revealed in God’s law, but not being able to because we are all ‘slaves of sin’.  It isn’t God’s Law’s fault, St Paul writes, it is rather that sin has been able to use God’s Law against us.  It is truly a wretched position we find ourselves in, and it is especially wretched for those who do not know Christ, but who, in their best moments, want to do good.  Tragically, outside of Christ, we never can and never will.

St Paul, having ended on this note of human helplessness and powerlessness, begins Romans 8 with a simple statement: 

‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 8:1)

We are so relieved to be able to move on that we sometimes miss noticing that this statement doesn’t really follow from what St Paul has just written.  How does there being ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ follow as a consequence of us not being able to do good despite wanting to?  The answer is: it doesn’t. 

Those who have been following these sermons will remember that we saw that at the end of chapter 5, that St Paul goes on to ask four questions in chapters 6-7.  In Romans 5, St Paul has sought to explain how we got in such a mess that all of us are unrighteous sinners, incapable of the righteousness that God requires, and in need of God to send his Son to die for us.  St Paul turns to Adam as part of his explanation and shows that not only are we sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners.  We are part of a race that is inherently and intrinsically sinful.  As such, we are, as a consequence, subject to death, and have only death to look forward to. 

In chapter 8, St Paul will pick up on this and describe it as the ‘law of sin and death’.  Just as there are physical laws governing the way things are in the universe, so too there are spiritual laws.  The law of sin and death is one of the most fundamental.  It means that you and I, without Christ, are slaves of sin, incapable of doing good, even if we want to, and are, therefore, destined for eternal death.

All this raises some very important questions, and in Romans 6-7, St Paul seeks to answer them.  It is like someone giving a long talk.  After having reached a significant point, the speaker will often pause and ask whether there are any questions so far.  A speaker will do this to make sure that the listeners understand what has been said so far and to answer any possible problems or objections the listeners may have with what has been said.  The questions are not a distraction, in fact often some of the most important things there are to be said get said in answer to the questions.  In Romans chapters 6-7, it is St Paul himself who asks the questions, but they are the questions he knows from experience that people will have and will need answering. 

In chapter 5, St Paul has described how the greater has been our sin, the greater has been God’s grace.  Does this mean that as believers we should go on sinning so we can experience even more of God’s grace?  It seems that some were suggesting that this was exactly what St Paul taught.  He rejects this suggestion out of hand.  As followers of Christ, we have died with Christ to sin.  It is inconceivable that we could go on living in it.  We were ‘slaves of sin’; now, however, that we have been ‘righteoused’ (justified) by faith, we are ‘slaves of righteousness’ and ought to live like we are (Romans 6:19).

Where, however, does God’s Law now fit in?  This is a question that has been hanging over all that St Paul has written so far, and he has made reference to it as he has been going along.  Now he confronts the question directly and the answer he gives is truly shocking.  Not only have believers died to sin with Christ, they have died to God’s Law.  Our relationship with God’s Law is now ended as well.  We are no longer ‘under Law’ and no longer serve God by keeping it.

Believers today find this hard to accept, even though they cheerfully ignore much that is in God’s Law.  We can perhaps, then, begin to imagine how those who were Jews and brought up to believe in and keep God’s Law must have felt.  Is St Paul suggesting that God’s Law itself is sin?

St Paul answers that no, God’s Law is not sin.  God’s law is ‘holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good’ (Romans 7:12).  Nevertheless, it is through God’s Law that we know what sin is.  God’s Law defines sin.  What is more sin uses God’s Law as a tool to provoke us into sinning and to make us subject to death.

Does this mean that it was God’s good Law that brought death to us?  Again, no, St Paul answers, but sin by working through God’s Law shows us how powerful sin is.  St Paul has described how, before we died with Christ, we were slaves of sin.  In Romans 7, he vividly describes what that looks and feels like.  In a powerful passage written in the first person, using the pronoun ‘I’, St Paul gives a graphic account of the experience of someone trying to keep God’s Law while still a slave of sin.  Quite simply, it can’t be done.  The condition of those who are slaves of sin but who want to keep God’s Law is wretched.

Having, then, answered the questions that arise from what he has written so far in his letter to the Romans, St Paul resumes his argument from where he left off in chapter 5.  He had finished chapter 5 by describing how we all stand condemned because of sin.  He now begins chapter 8 by telling the Roman believers that there is now ‘no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’.  Given how wretched our condition is outside of Christ, this is the best possible news.  But it is only in Christ that we find liberation.

Christ Jesus, he writes, has set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).  Those who are in Christ are now governed by a different spiritual law, it is the law of the spirit of life.  God has dealt with sin by sending his Son to condemn sin itself so that we no longer can be condemned because of it.  It is a powerful and life-changing message once we understand it.  Charles Wesley describes it better than anyone in this week’s hymn to go with the sermon!

But it really is a life-changing message and St Paul expects the lives of those who believe it to be changed.  He has already pointed this out in answer to the questions about whether the believer should continue in sin.  In chapter 6 he wrote that this is unthinkable.  But in chapter 7 he wrote how it was impossible for anyone who was not a believer who wanted to do good to do it.  What has changed?  We are ‘righteoused’ (justified) by faith.  We are no longer condemned with all the other children of Adam.  But how are we now to be ‘slaves of righteousness’?

The answer is: by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit hasn’t made much of an appearance in Romans so far.  Now, however, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage.  St Paul has been building up to this, and he has dropped hints along the way.  In chapter 5:5, St Paul wrote that God’s love has been 'poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.  In Romans 6:4, he wrote that ‘just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’  More explicitly, in Romans 7:6, he wrote:

‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’

We are no longer slaves of sin, we are slaves of God and slaves of righteousness in the new way of the Spirit.  The incredible thing is that the Holy Spirit enables us to achieve the righteousness that the Law required but which it was powerless to deliver (Romans 8:4).  Thankfully, we have died to the Law.  We don’t serve God that way any more.

St Paul sees the believer’s life in this world as now being governed completely by the Spirit.  Following Christ is not about keeping written commandments and trying to do good when we have the time.  It is, as St Paul describes it, entering an entirely new and different dimension of existence.  So different that it is, as we have seen, governed by different laws.  But for us to be able to exist in this dimension, we must have the Holy Spirit.  He is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, he is central to our existence as followers of Christ.  St Paul writes:

‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

There is much more that can and ought to be said, and I will try and say some of it next week!  For now, however, I want to make some observations on our journey so far through Romans.  St Paul began by saying he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16), and he has been explaining why.

1. There’s a lot of bad news

St Paul describes our ungodliness, our unrighteousness, and our sin.  He tells us we can expect nothing, but judgement and death.  And if that’s not bad enough, there’s nothing we can do about it.  We are condemned slaves of sin who are incapable of doing good, even if we want to.  There is amongst many church theologians, church leaders, and ordinary believers alike a desire to abandon this sort of talk and language.  Many are upfront about wanting to do so.  Others just quietly drop and ignore it.

We prefer instead to tell people good news.  This wouldn’t be quite so bad if the good news was good news about Jesus.  But often it isn’t.  At least, not especially.  We have totally bought into the popular idea that we are all wonderful really.  Jesus helps us to be the person that really we are and deep down want to be.

We are led to believe that it is not our rebellion against God, our unrighteous behaviour, and our sin that prevents us from being whole, but barriers in the world around us and in the unjust and unfair societies in which we live.  ‘It’s not my fault’ is no longer the cry of the spoilt child, but the slogan of a generation.  And so it is not me that must change but society around me.  It is not me who will be condemned, but anyone who gets in the way of me doing what I want to do or being who I want to be.

It is going to come as a terrible shock to a great many people to stand before God on the Day of Judgement, as St Paul describes in chapter 2 of Romans, and to be told that they are condemned and will experience God’s wrath as a consequence.

This is why telling people the bad news isn’t to wallow in guilt or to indulge in a kind of sadistic spiritual pleasure, but is simply to tell people the truth that they need to hear.  The truth, that is, about the society they live in, the human race of which they are a part, and about themselves as individuals.  Leave out the bad news and there is no good news.

You and I are not fundamentally good and need guiding; we are fundamentally bad and need saving.’  Jesus didn’t come to be our life coach; he came to be our Saviour.

2. It’s about a change of life

This bad news about ourselves and the world we live in helps us understand how amazing what God has done for us in Christ actually is.  God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, St Paul writes in Romans 8:3.  ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,’ he tells us in Romans 5:8.  There was and is no other way.  There was literally nothing we could do, or can do, to save ourselves.  How could there be given how bad our situation is?

We can argue over the precise meaning of phrases like ‘justification by faith’, but there can be no missing that whatever else they mean, they mean you and I cannot do good, cannot be reconciled to God, cannot enjoy peace with God, cannot experience forgiveness, and cannot save ourselves from judgement.  We can do nothing.  God has to do it all and God has done it all in Christ. 

All this is not about abstract theological concepts.  Unfortunately, even those who believe in it in a theoretical sense, live as if it is.  Even as I write these words, I know that they simply will not connect with many otherwise committed and sincere believers.  We have so bought into the prevailing ideologies of our day that we have become spiritually immune to what was simply the normal way of looking at things amongst believers in the past.

Nevertheless, what the Gospel offers to those who turn to Christ is nothing less than a new life in a new dimension.  It not only brings forgiveness and freedom from the past and new life in the present as we experience the love of God in Christ, it also opens up the possibility of a new way of living in the present so that we can become, not the person we want to be, but the person God wants us to be.  And what God wants for us is always more and better than what we want for ourselves.

The sad irony of the message of self-fulfilment pedalled to us by the world around us is that it is so much less than what God offers us in Christ.  Not only is it limited to life in this world in the here and now, it is a very limited life in this world in the here and now.  It is a life that often comes down to finding a few things you want to do before you die.  And we can’t even see how pathetic that is.

God has so much more for us in Christ, but it means trusting him and committing ourselves to him, and that means surrendering the control that got us into the mess we are in in the first place.

But this doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do.  Once we enter the life that God offers us in Christ there are so many possibilities, possibilities made possible by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  What was formerly impossible because we were slaves of sin now becomes possible to as slaves of God.  What God’s Law was powerless to do the Holy Spirit is powerful to do.  We are a new creation in Christ and are called to walk in newness of life.

This will mean behaving in a certain way; a different way to how we lived outside of Christ and to how people live in the world around us.  St Paul will talk more about what this looks like in practice later in Romans.   It also means thinking in a new way.

Our outlook, our worldview, what our reading this week describes as our ‘mindset’, is to be that of the Spirit of God.  Our way of thinking is to be different to way the world in which we live thinks and to how we typically thought as slaves of sin.  Our values, attitudes, and priorities will all be different to what they were before.  Now they too will be those of God’s Spirit living in us.

3. It’s about a relationship

What St Paul has written so far to explain his understanding of the Gospel to the Roman believers in the hope they will support him as he takes it to Spain involves a lot of ideas.  St Paul writes on many different subjects and his argument is careful and tightly packed.  There is so much in it and much to think and discuss as we are trying to do in these sermons. 

St Paul, however, is not trying to sell the Gospel as a philosophical system to believe in or a code of ethics to live by.  It certainly involves ideas and guides how we live, but at its heart is a relationship with God in Christ made possible by the Spirit.

St Paul writes in Romans 8 of how important the Holy Spirit is for us to experience and live the new life that God gives us in Christ.  We are to let the Holy Spirit lead us in living this new life.  Those who are led in this way follow not out of fear, but trust.  It is the trust that a child puts in their parent when led by them.  St Paul writes:

‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.’ (Romans 8:14)

This is not an idea to be grasped, but a relationship to be lived and enjoyed.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God …’ (Romans 8:15-16)

Children cry out to their father or mother, and we cry out to God in the same way.  Next week, we will see how we especially cry out in the suffering that inevitably we experience as humans in this world.  But it is by no means limited to this.  Our walk with God is that of a child with his or her Father.

The challenges we face in our lives are many.  Life not easy.  And it is not easy being a child of God in a world in rebellion against him, but God has given us his Spirit to lead us and to guide us.  Every step we take, every moment of every day in all we do, we have the Spirit help us and to be with us.

We are not alone, and, like St Paul, we too are not ashamed.


Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Here is my sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 7:15-25 

In the passage from Romans that we have come to this morning, St Paul describes the experience of someone who cannot do the good they want to do, but instead find themself doing the very thing they hate. It is one of the most important passages in the letter and one that has far-reaching consequences for all of us here today if we accept its teaching.

It is a passage that divides interpreters into two camps. On the one hand, there are those who think that the experience St Paul describes is that of a believer. On the other, there are those that think it is the experience of those who are not believers, but who want to do good in obedience to God’s Law. All are agreed, however, that St Paul here teaches the impossibility of humans living good lives unless they are in a relationship with God through faith in Christ. The only difference being that some would go further and argue that it is not possible even then! 

Let’s step back and see what’s going on. 

In Romans 1-5, St Paul has explained how all of us who are equally facing the wrath of God as unrighteous sinners can be ‘righteoused’ (the English word is ‘justified’), find peace with God, and enter a relationship with him through Jesus Christ who died for us. This is possible by having faith in Christ. It is not based on any works we may do. It is made possible solely by God’s grace given to us even while we are sinners. 

In Romans chapters 6 and 7, St Paul seeks to answer the questions which he knew would rise from what he has written so far. It is St Paul himself who asks the questions, but they are clearly ones he has had to answer before. While St Paul and the other leaders of the Church were agreed on most things, when it came to the role and place of God’s Law, St Paul found himself taking a different approach to them. 

This had led to much misunderstanding and even to outright opposition to him and his work. St Paul is writing to the Roman Church to seek their support for a mission he is planning to Spain. He has so far been unable to visit the Roman Church in person. Romans is his attempt to explain to the Roman Christians the message he preaches and to clear up any misunderstanding they may have about him and his teaching in the hope they will support him. 

The four questions that he asks in chapters 6 and 7 are central to what he is trying to explain in this letter. Each question leads into the other and builds up to our passage this morning. 

So, what are the four questions? 

Question One: ‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ (Romans 6:1) 

If it has been the case that the greater has been our sin, the greater has been God’s grace, then why not go on sinning so that we can enjoy more grace? St Paul responds that when we came to faith in Christ, we died with him to sin. Our old self, who we were, has been crucified with Christ, so that we can live a new life. We are no longer under God’s Law, but under grace. 

Question Two: ‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace’ (Romans 6:15) 

If we are not under God’s Law, does that mean we can do what we like? No, says St Paul, we are not free in the sense that we can do what we like. We are either slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness. If we prefer to serve sin, sin will pay us wages for our service and those wages are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. When we died with Christ to sin, we also died to God’s Law, and we now serve God in a new way and not in the old way of following written commandments. 

Question Three: ‘What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!’ (Romans 7:7)

Does all this mean that the Law is sin? It does sound a bit that way, but again, no, says St Paul, it’s just that God’s Law tells us what sin is, and, without meaning to, in telling us what sin is, it provokes us into sinning. Sin has taken advantage of what God’s Law says to lead us into sin and so has brought death to us. But God’s Law itself, says St Paul, is ‘holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good’ (Romans 7:12). 

Question Four: Did what is good, then, bring death to me? (Romans 7:13) 

If that’s the case, should God’s Law be blamed for the physical and spiritual death that we all now experience? No, says St Paul, but sin has used God’s Law, which is good, to inflict death on us. A chef’s knife in the right hands, for example, can bring life through food, but in the wrong hands it can be an instrument of death. So too with sin and the Law. Notice how sin has become less about individual acts and the things that we do, and now is instead more a power and force to be reckoned with. 

I imagine for many people, then and now, what St Paul writes in answer to these questions just washes over them. We sort of get what he is saying, but we are not emotionally engaged. It doesn’t get to us. It is, however, for St Paul a highly emotional issue, and it should be for us. St Paul is talking about life and death. Our life and death! If we were caught up in what he is saying, what we should be asking by now is where we fit into all this. How does this apply to us personally? 

And what about us? We seem to be rather passive in all this. St Paul has told us that to become believers our old self has had to be crucified. We are now slaves of God, but before this we were slaves of sin. We have had to receive eternal life as a gift and not because we have done anything to deserve it. And without this gift, we are dead and facing eternal death because sin has led us into doing that which is wrong. What is more, sin has managed to do this through something that was good. We seem rather weak and pathetic; helpless and powerless. 

To put it more directly: why don’t we resist sin and why don’t we do what God’s Law tells us to do? Why don’t we love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength? And why don’t we love our neighbour as ourselves? Why, instead, do we ignore God, hate people, lie, cheat, and desire what belongs to someone else? Because, St Paul writes, although God’s Law is spiritual, we, naturally, are not; we are of the flesh, sold into slavery to sin. 

In answer to the first question, St Paul has said that we have been freed from slavery to sin by the death of Christ. Now he describes what that slavery looks like before going on in Romans 8 to describe what being a slave of Christ looks like. Slaves long to be free. Being a slave doesn’t mean you don’t know you are a slave and that you don’t long for your freedom. An addict knows their habit is bad and that it will kill them, but still they keep on with their habit. They have no choice. We see, in God’s Law, the life of God that could be ours if only we could break our addiction to sin. 

God’s Law shows us what we could be like and what we should be like, and often we do want to be better people. And so, we try to break free and end our habit; we try to do the good we know we should do. And then comes the pain and anguish of finding that we can’t. ‘I can will what is right but I can’t do it’ (Romans 7:18). ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’ (Romans 7:19). No wonder St Paul cries out: 

‘Wretched man that I am!’ (Romans 7:24) 

In my mind, I may want to live the life I know I should. I may want to live the sort of life that I know will bring me peace and happiness, but I simply lack the ability to do so. I am a slave to something which has possessed me, has taken me over, and controls me. No matter how hard I try I just can’t seem to be the person I want to be and do what I want to do. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me is that I am a sin addict. I not only commit sin, I am addicted to sin. 

It’s a bleak and dark picture of the human condition that St Paul paints in this passage, and it is meant to be. But we try not to look at it. We want the good news of the Gospel, not the bad news about sin. It is, however, when we see clearly the bad news about ourselves that we are in the best position to hear the good news of the Gospel that saves us from both ourselves and our sin. St Paul, having described how wretched our condition is and how unable to help ourselves, in desperation asks, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?'  He answers his own question, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!' (Romans 7:25). 

But that’s the point: we need to be rescued. Although we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, God in Christ has intervened with a divine rescue programme. There is hope: ‘If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36). 

God’s Law could have brought life if only we had the power to obey it. But because we are powerless to keep it, all it can do is condemn us and tell us how wrong we are. 

When did we become slaves of sin? That’s the terrible irony. We always have been. ‘Sin deceived me,’ writes St Paul. Sin has managed to deceive us into thinking we are free in order to lead us deeper and deeper into its service and away from him who alone can set us free. Our pride and our refusal to worship the one true God is sin’s greatest ally. 

We hate this idea that we are useless and weak; unable to help ourselves. And so, we willingly believe sin’s deception. There are degrees of deception, but at the heart of the deception is the idea that we don’t need God, we can not only manage, but thrive on our own. We have turned this into our philosophy of life. Instead of the ‘I’ of this passage which admits its weakness, its enslavement, and its need of God. We have the ‘I’ of today. The ‘I’ of today says: 

‘I can be whoever I want to be, do whatever I want to do, and follow whatever dream I may happen to have. It’s my life, and I am free to make my own decisions and choices. It’s not for anyone else to tell me who I am or what I should do. It’s all about me. I am in control and I am wonderful.’ 

‘The good that I would, I do; and I do it for myself. Any evil that there is exists not in me, but in the unfair systems and unjust structures of the society to which I belong.’ 

This is the lie sin wants us to keep on believing. Anyone who thinks like this is utterly deluded and delusional. But it is a way of thinking we have bought into, and it is constantly reinforced by all the publicity on social media and in society at large. We are absolutely convinced of our own worth and of our own ability. Anyone or anything that suggests otherwise is just a negative influence that needs to be ‘cancelled’ or ignored. 

This great deceit now provides the philosophy that is the basis for our education, legal, and political systems. It is giving rise to a form of totalitarianism which is far more scary to me than any security law. But what is even more scary and worrying is the degree to which the churches have bought into this lie and are changing their message to accommodate it. 

Listening to some church leaders, Jesus is little more than a life coach who is there to help people realize their potential. St Paul in this short passage, however, challenges the very basis of how people increasingly think and of how the Church presents the Gospel. The truth is that we, you and I, are not fundamentally good and need guiding; we are fundamentally bad and need saving. 

‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24

I do not need for my-self to be fulfilled, but for my-self to be crucified with Christ. It’s not society that is at fault, but me. It’s not society that needs changing, but me that needs renewing with the life of Christ. 

This is the good news of the Gospel. It is a message that confronts the deceit of self and shows it for what it is. It exposes the lie that we can live without God and that all will be well whatever we think or do. It isn’t a message that invites us to ‘like it’ if it feels right for us, but which challenges us and warns us of the consequences if we don’t respond to it. We can be a slave of sin or a slave of Christ; there is no alternative, no other way. As St Peter put it: 

‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12) 

For those of us who are being saved, Charles Wesley expresses what we feel in our Offertory hymn this morning: 

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee. 

‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? 

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romans 7:24-25)