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.


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